Turner v. Commissioner of Social Security
OPINION AND ORDER: The Court hereby GRANTS the relief requested in Plaintiff's Opening Brief 15 and REMANDS this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Signed by Magistrate Judge John E Martin on 3/13/2018. (jss)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
DANIELLE MARIE TURNER,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
CAUSE NO.: 2:17-CV-84-JEM
OPINION AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on a Complaint [DE 1], filed by Plaintiff Danielle Marie
Turner on February 22, 2017, and Plaintiff’s Opening Brief [DE 15], filed by Plaintiff on June 19,
2017. Plaintiff requests that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge be reversed and remanded
for further proceedings. On July 18, 2017, the Commissioner filed a response, and on August 11,
2017, Plaintiff filed a reply. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiff’s request for
On May 29, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for benefits alleging that she became disabled
on April 9, 2012. Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. After a
hearing on June 3, 2015, at which Plaintiff, with an attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”)
testified, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Margaret Carey issued a decision on June 26, 2015,
finding that Plaintiff was not disabled.
The ALJ made the following findings under the required five-step analysis:
The claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act
through December 31, 2017.
The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 9,
2012, the alleged onset date.
The claimant has severe impairments: affective disorders (depression,
bipolar), anxiety disorders (posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety),
a personality disorder, and status post fractures of her feet and ankle.
The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments
that meets or medically equals the severity of one the listed impairments in
20 CFR 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
The claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except: she can occasionally climb
ramps and stairs, but she can never crawl or climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds. The claimant cannot have any exposure to unprotected heights,
moving mechanical parts, or slippery wet surfaces, and only occasional
exposure to vibration and wetness. She is further limited to simple, routine
task involving only simple work-related decisions, and requiring a break
every two hours that can be accommodated by normal breaks and lunch. She
is also limited to no interaction with the public, only occasional interaction
with coworkers with no tandem tasks, and only occasional interaction with
The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work.
The claimant was a younger individual age 18-49 on the alleged disability
The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate
Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability
because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a
finding that the claimant is “not disabled,” whether or not the claimant has
transferable job skills.
Considering the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and residual
functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that the claimant can perform.
The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security
Act, from April 9, 2012, through the date of the decision.
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, leaving the ALJ’s decision the
final decision of the Commissioner.
The parties filed forms of consent to have this case assigned to a United States Magistrate
Judge to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case.
Therefore, this Court has jurisdiction to decide this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and 42
U.S.C. § 405(g).
Standard or Review
The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the Social Security
Agency and indicates that the Commissioner’s factual findings must be accepted as conclusive if
supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, a court reviewing the findings of an
ALJ will reverse only if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ has
applied an erroneous legal standard. See Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).
Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting
Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003)).
A court reviews the entire administrative record but does not reconsider facts, re-weigh the
evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its judgment
for that of the ALJ. See Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir. 2005); Clifford v. Apfel, 227
F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1055 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, the
question upon judicial review of an ALJ’s finding that a claimant is not disabled within the meaning
of the Social Security Act is not whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled, but whether the ALJ
“uses the correct legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Roddy v.
Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing O’Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618
(7th Cir. 2010); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006); Barnett v. Barnhart,
381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004)). “[I]f the Commissioner commits an error of law,” the Court may
reverse the decision “without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings.”
White v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 369, 373 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th
At a minimum, an ALJ must articulate his or her analysis of the evidence in order to allow
the reviewing court to trace the path of her reasoning and to be assured that the ALJ considered the
important evidence. See Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002); Diaz v. Chater, 55
F.3d 300, 307 (7th Cir. 1995); Green v. Shalala, 51 F.3d 96, 101 (7th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must
“‘build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion’ so that, as a reviewing
court, we may assess the validity of the agency’s final decision and afford [a claimant] meaningful
review.” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott, 297 F.3d at 595); see also
O’Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 618 (“An ALJ need not specifically address every piece of evidence,
but must provide a ‘logical bridge’ between the evidence and his conclusions.”); Zurawski v. Halter,
245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001) (“[T]he ALJ’s analysis must provide some glimpse into the
reasoning behind [the] decision to deny benefits.”).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in her analysis of the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating
psychiatrist, erred in evaluating Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and did not
properly analyze her subjective allegations. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ’s opinion is
supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to find that Plaintiff meets Listing 12.04 for
affective disorders or Listing 12.06 for anxiety-related disorders. The Commissioner argues that the
ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence.
The determination of whether a claimant suffers from a listed impairment comes at steps two
and three of the ALJ’s analysis. Step two of the ALJ’s analysis requires an examination of whether
the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that are severe. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). A medically determinable impairment or combination of
impairments is severe if it significantly limits an individual’s physical or mental ability to do basic
work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c). The determination of whether a claimant
suffers from a severe condition that meets a listed impairment comes at step three of the sequential
analysis. At step three, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant’s impairments meet an
impairment listed in the appendix to the social security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 416.920(a)(4)(iii). An individual suffering from an impairment that meets the
description of a listing or its equivalent is conclusively presumed to be disabled. See Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 141 (1987). In order “[f]or a claimant to show that his impairment matches
a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530
(1990). An impairment that manifests only some of the criteria will not qualify, no matter its
As relevant in this case and in accordance with the regulations in effect at the time of the
ALJ’s opinion, for a claimant to meet the criteria of Listing 12.04 for affective disorders or Listing
12.06 for anxiety related disorders, there must be medically documented persistence of a particular
mental health syndrome that results in at least two of the “B” criteria: “1. Marked restriction of
activities of daily living; or 2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; or 3. Marked
difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or 4. Repeated episodes of
decompensation, each of extended duration.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 §§ 12.04, 12.06.
Plaintiff argues that the record supports a finding that Plaintiff has marked limitations in
concentration, persistence, or pace, and marked limitations in activities of daily living, including the
ability to care for her personal needs or interact with others. The Commissioner argues that Plaintiff
has not met her burden of showing that her impairments met or equaled the requirements of either
listed impairment. The ALJ addressed each of the Paragraph “B” criteria for the listings and found
moderate restrictions in activities of daily living, moderate difficulty maintaining social functioning,
and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. This case is being
remanded for other reasons, as described below. On remand, the ALJ is reminded of the need to
examine the evidence and explain her analysis in determining whether Plaintiff’s symptoms meet
a listed impairment.
Residual Functional Capacity
The RFC is an assessment of what work-related activities the claimant can perform despite
her limitations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004); see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1545(a)(1); 416.1545(a)(1). In evaluating a claimant's RFC, an ALJ is expected to take into
consideration all of the relevant evidence, including both medical and non-medical evidence. See
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3); 416.945(a)(3). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in her determination
of how much weight to give the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating sources. The Commissioner argues
that the ALJ’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist completed a questionnaire addressing Plaintiff’s symptoms.
He opined that she had difficulty initiating activities, difficulty making decisions, was early
overwhelmed, and found it very difficult to attended do a simple work routine on a consistent basis.
The entirety of the ALJ’s description of this opinion is that it was “given little evidentiary weight”
because, “[a]lthough one of the claimant’s treating physician’s, Dr. Framption’s opinion is simply
not supported by the totality of the evidence, including his own treatment notes.” AR 28. She does
not refer to any supposedly contradictory evidence or treatment notes that contradict the opinion.
In the same paragraph, the ALJ addressed the opinion of another treating psychotherapist, stating,
without any further analysis, that it was given “some evidentiary weight to the extent it indicates the
claimant is not disabled.” AR 28.
“A treating physician’s opinion regarding the nature and severity of a medical condition is
entitled to controlling weight if it is well supported by medical findings and not inconsistent with
other substantial evidence in the record.” Gudgel, 345 F.3d at 470 (citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(d)(2)); see also Hamilton v. Colvin, 525 F. App’x 433, 439 (7th Cir. 2013) (“While the
ALJ is right that the ultimate question of disability is reserved to the Commissioner, a treating
physician’s opinion that a claimant is disabled ‘must not be disregarded.’”) (quoting SSR 96–5p,
1996 WL 374183, at *5 (July 2, 1996)) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(2)); Roddy, 705 F.3d at 636
(“Even though the ALJ was not required to give [the treating physician]’s opinion [that the claimant
could not handle a full-time job] controlling weight, he was required to provide a sound explanation
for his decision to reject it.”).
In this case, the ALJ gave almost no explanation for her decision to essentially reject the
opinions the physician who treated Plaintiff’s mental health disorders. Because the ALJ failed to
give controlling weight to Plaintiff’s treating psychaiatrists, she was required to analyze the
following factors to describe what weight to give their opinions: the length, nature, and extent of the
physician’s treatment relationship with the claimant; whether the physician’s opinions were
sufficiently supported; how consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole; whether the
physician specializes in the medical conditions at issue; and other factors, such as the amount of
understanding of the disability programs and their evidentiary requirements or the extent to which
an acceptable medical source is familiar with other information in the claimant’s case. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c)(2)(i)-(ii), (c)(3)-(6); see also Punzio v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 704, 710 (7th Cir. 2011)
(“[W]henever an ALJ does reject a treating source’s opinion, a sound explanation must be given for
that decision.”). This the ALJ failed to do.
This failure is even more striking since there is no indication that the ALJ gave weight to any
mental health evidence in the record. The ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinions of the agency
psychological consultants, and gave “little evidentiary weight” to the opinions of Plaintiff’s other
mental health treatment providers because they were not acceptable medical sources and because
their findings were based on subjective complaints. As with the treating physicians, the ALJ failed
to comply with the requirements for weighing source opinions. See SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939,
*4 (Aug. 9, 2006) (requiring the ALJ to address factors such as: “How long the source has known
and how frequently the source has seen the individual; How consistent the opinion is with other
evidence; The degree to which the source presents relevant evidence to support an opinion; How
well the source explains the opinion; [and] Whether the source has a specialty or area of expertise
related to the individual’s impairment(s)”); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3).
The Court is unable to determine what evidence, if any, provides the basis for the ALJ’s
assessment of Plaintiff’s mental health and how any limitations were incorporated into the RFC. See
Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010) (“A decision denying benefits need not
discuss every piece of evidence, but if it lacks an adequate discussion of the issues, it will be
remanded.”); Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 322 F.3d 912, 917 (7th Cir. 2003) (“[T]he ALJ may not
ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to the ruling.”). In addition, the Court is concerned
that the ALJ failed to consider the combination of Plaintiff’s impairments, a failure that is
particularly concerning given her obesity and the fact that she suffers from a number of both
physical and mental health limitations. See, e.g., Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2009)
(“[A]n ALJ must consider the combined effects of all of the claimant’s impairments, even those that
would not be considered severe in isolation.” ); Getch v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 473, 483 (7th Cir. 2008)
(“[A]n ALJ is required to consider the aggregate effects of a claimant’s impairments, including
impairments that, in isolation, are not severe.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523; Golembiewski, 322
F.3d at 918); Hernandez v. Astrue, 277 F. App’x 617, 623-24 (7th Cir. 2008) (“Social Security
Ruling 02-1p requires an ALJ to consider the exacerbating effects of a claimant’s obesity on her
underlying conditions (even if the obesity is not itself a severe impairment) when arriving at a
claimant’s RFC.”) (citing SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 34686281 (Sept. 12, 2002)) (other citations
Similarly, the Court cannot determine how the ALJ incorporated Plaintiff’s moderate
limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace into the RFC. A limitation to simple work is
generally insufficient to account for moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace
because “[t]he ability to stick with a task over a sustained period is not the same as the ability to
learn how to do tasks of a given complexity.” O’Connor-Spinner, 627 F.3d at 620-21 (“In most
cases . . . employing terms like ‘simple, repetitive tasks’ on their own will not necessarily exclude
from the VE’s consideration those positions that present significant problems of concentration,
persistence and pace.”); see also Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 813-14 (7th Cir. 2011) (concluding
that limitations to sedentary and light unskilled work did not “address the impact of the mental
limitations . . . which . . . limited [the plaintiff]’s ability to maintain regular work attendance, to carry
out instructions, and to deal with the stresses of full-time employment”); Stewart v. Astrue, 561 F.3d
679, 684-85 (7th Cir. 2009) (rejecting the contention “that the ALJ accounted for [the plaintiff]’s
limitations of concentration, persistence, and pace by restricting the inquiry to simple, routine tasks
that do not require constant interactions with coworkers or the general public”); see also SSR 85-15,
1985 WL 56857, at *6 (Jan. 1, 1985) (“Because response to the demands of work is highly
individualized, the skill level of a position is not necessarily related to the difficulty an individual
will have in meeting the demands of the job. A claimant’s [mental] condition may make
performance of an unskilled job as difficult as an objectively more demanding job.”). On remand,
the ALJ is directed to thoroughly explain how the RFC takes into account all of Plaintiff’s
limitations, including those in concentration, persistence, and pace.
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ also failed to properly weigh her testimony about the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of her own symptoms. The ALJ must weigh the claimant’s
subjective complaints, the relevant objective medical evidence, and any other evidence of a number
of other factors relating to “functional limitations and restrictions due to pain or other symptoms.”
20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3). An ALJ is not required to give full credit to every statement of pain
made by the claimant or to find a disability each time a claimant states he or she is unable to work.
See Rucker v. Chater, 92 F.3d 492, 496 (7th Cir. 1996). However, Ruling 96-7p, in effect at the time
of the ALJ’s opinion, provides that a claimant’s statements regarding symptoms or the effect of
symptoms on his ability to work “may not be disregarded solely because they are not substantiated
by objective evidence.” SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *6 (Jul. 2, 1996).
In this case, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s mental impairments to be less limiting than reported
because of gaps in seeking therapy and failure to always take medications as prescribed. However,
when gaps in treatment are used as a factor in determining whether a claimant’s statements regarding
her symptoms are credible, an ALJ is required make a determination about whether the lack of
treatment is justified and develop the record accordingly. See SSR 96-7p at *7; Shauger v. Astrue,
675 F.3d 690, 696 (7th Cir. 2012) (“Although a history of sporadic treatment or the failure to follow
a treatment plan can undermine a claimant’s credibility, an ALJ must first explore the claimant’s
reasons for the lack of medical care before drawing a negative inference.”); Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d
668, 679 (7th Cir. 2008) (“[T]he ALJ ‘must not draw any inferences’ about a claimant’s condition
from this failure unless the ALJ has explored the claimant’s explanations as to the lack of medical
care.”) (quoting SSR 96-7p). That failure is particularly concerning in this case given Plaintiff’s
documented mental illnesses and the fact that she explained that she did not have the financial means
to pay for treatment. Rather than considering that Plaintiff’s mental health limitations may have
made it more difficult for her to remember to take her medications or to seek out discounted mental
health treatment from unknown providers, the ALJ opined that if Plaintiff’s “impairments were truly
as limiting as she suggests, the undersigned would expect her to seek out alternative, less expensive
treatment methods, or any free medical services.” AR 26. As the Seventh Circuit has emphasized,
“mental illness . . . may prevent the sufferer from taking her prescribed medicines or otherwise
submitting to treatment.” Kangail v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 627, 630 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Jelinek,
662 F.3d at 814 (listing cases).
The apparent misunderstanding of mental health evidence also extends to the ALJ’s
discounting Plaintiff’s limitations because the record contains reports of good days and logical
reasoning as well as reports of rambling thought process and impaired judgment. The Seventh
Circuit Court of Appeals has warned against this type of “cherry-picking” of mental health evidence,
particularly because “a person who suffers from a mental illness will have better days and worse
days, so a snapshot of any single moment says little about her overall condition.” Punzio, 630 F.3d
at 710. Instead, “[t]he very nature of bipolar disorder is that people with the disease experience
fluctuations in their symptoms, so any single notation that a patient is feeling better or has had a
‘good day’ does not imply that the condition has been treated.” Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739-40
(7th Cir. 2011); Larson v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 744, 751 (7th Cir. 2010) (“[S]ymptoms that ‘wax and
wane’ are not inconsistent with a diagnosis of recurrent, major depression. ‘A person who has a
chronic disease, whether physical or psychiatric, and is under continuous treatment for it with heavy
drugs, is likely to have better days and worse days.’”) (quoting Bauer v. Astrue, 532 F.3d 606, 609
(7th Cir. 2008)).
On remand, the ALJ is directed to fully consider Plaintiff’s reported physical and mental
limitations, both alone and in combination, and to weigh evidence of mental limitations, in
particular, in accordance with applicable law and regulations, analyzing whether characteristics that
might otherwise show lack of consistency may in fact be evidence of mental health problems.
Plaintiff requests that the Court reverse the Commissioner’s decision and remand for an
award of benefits. An award of benefits is appropriate “only if all factual issues have been resolved
and the record supports a finding of disability.” Briscoe, 425 F.3d at 356. In this case, the ALJ
failed to properly weigh the medical evidence in the record, failed to draw a logical bridge from the
evidence to her conclusions, and failed to properly assess Plaintiff’s statements about her limitations.
credibility. Plaintiff has not met her burden of showing that she meets the Listings or presented a
developed argument in favor of an award of benefits. Accordingly, this matter is remanded for
For the foregoing reasons, the Court hereby GRANTS the relief requested in Plaintiff’s
Opening Brief [DE 15] and REMANDS this matter for further proceedings consistent with this
SO ORDERED this 13th day of March, 2018.
s/ John E. Martin
MAGISTRATE JUDGE JOHN E. MARTIN
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
All counsel of record
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