Stewart v. Commissioner of Social Security
OPINION AND ORDER: The Administrative Law Judge's finding that Plaintiff Adam J Stewart's disability ended on November 15, 2011, pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), is AFFIRMED. Clerk DIRECTED to enter judgment in favor of Defendant Commissioner of Social Security and against Plaintiff Adam J Stewart. Signed by Magistrate Judge Michael G Gotsch, Sr on 3/31/17. (cer)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
SOUTH BEND DIVISION
ADAM JAMES STEWART,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security
CAUSE NO. 3:15-CV-00344-MGG
OPINION AND ORDER
On August 6, 2015, Plaintiff Adam James Stewart (“Stewart”) filed a complaint in this
Court seeking remand of the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA’s”) final administrative
decision denying the continuation of his Disability Insurance Benefits (“D.I.B.”) based on the
SSA’s termination of benefits effective November 15, 2011. On April 18, 2016, Stewart, filed
his Opening Brief and a Medical Summary and Statement of Relevant Facts. On July 26, 2016,
the Defendant, Commissioner of Social Security, (“the Commissioner”), filed a Memorandum in
Support of the Commissioner’s Decision and a Summary of Relevant Medical Evidence and
Testimony, to affirm the ALJ’s denial of D.I.B. Stewart filed a reply brief on September 29,
2016. This Court may enter a ruling in this matter based on the parties consent, 28 U.S.C. §
636(c), and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
On August 6, 2008, the SSA found Stewart was disabled because of Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), migraines, a back injury, multiple concussions, hearing loss, and high
blood pressure, as of January 14, 2016, and therefore awarded him D.I.B. [DE 10 at 116]. The
SSA determination date of Stewart’s disability is known as the Comparison Point Decision
(“C.P.D.”). Upon regular review of Stewart’s eligibility for D.I.B., pursuant to 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1589, the SSA terminated his benefits as of November 15, 2011, and sent him a Notice of
Disability Cessation. [DE 10 at 113-16]. The termination date of Stewart’s D.I.B. is the date of
Stewart’s medical improvement. On November 15, 2011, the date of cessation, the SSA sent a
Notice of Disability Cessation to Stewart, terminating Stewart’s D.I.B. [DE 10 at 113-16]. On
December 8, 2011, Stewart filed a request for reconsideration before a Disability Hearing
Officer. On May 22, 2012, the Disability Hearing Officer concluded that Stewart was not
eligible for D.I.B. After filing a timely written appeal, Stewart attended an evidentiary hearing
with the SSA Disability Hearing Office on February 26, 2014. The hearing was held before an
ALJ, in Valparaiso, Indiana, where a vocational expert and two medical experts testified. On
March 28, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision finding Stewart was not disabled as of November
15, 2011, the date of cessation of his D.I.B. Stewart appealed the ALJ’s decision on April 4,
2014, to the SSA’s Appeals Council. On June 3, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Stewart’s
request for review citing the ALJ’s decision. Stewart now seeks judicial review of the
Commissioner’s final decision pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing his
complaint in this Court on August 6, 2015.
Stewart was born on March 22, 1984, and was 21 years old on the disability onset date of
January 14, 2006. Stewart is a high school graduate and enlisted in the National Guard where he
received military training at the School of Infantry in Fort Benning, Georgia. In December 2004,
Stewart entered into active duty for tours in Iraq. While in Iraq, Stewart incurred service-related
injuries, which included a back injury and PTSD. After an honorable discharge, Stewart
received treatment through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (“VA”). Stewart previously
worked as a laborer in an auto repair shop and worked as a maintenance worker. Stewart can
complete basic household tasks, pay bills, and has cared for pets, which helps reduce his stress.
When asked about his physical impairments, Stewart testified that he continues to have
lower back pain, flashbacks, episodes of anxiety, and migraine headaches. Stewart testified that
his migraine headaches are triggered by noise, smell, and sound. When asked about physical
limitations, Stewart stated that he could lift and carry objects up to thirty pounds, for five to
seven minutes at a time. Stewart also stated that he uses a cane for walking, even though it has
not been prescribed. Furthermore, Stewart stated that he has difficulty kneeling and climbing
stairs as he feels pressure in this back. Stewart also testified that the VA assessed him with an
eighty-percent disability and that he receives VA benefits as a result. When asked about his
mental limitations, Stewart stated that he suffers from depression and has trouble with learning
new things and following directions.
At his February 26, 2014, evidentiary hearing, Stewart testified that he remained
incarcerated in Plainfield, Indiana after a DUI arrest on January 10, 2014. Stewart testified that
his incarceration prevented access to any medication except those prescribed for his high blood
pressure and high cholesterol. Stewart stated he purchased Tylenol or Advil through the prison
commissary to alleviate his lower back pain. Stewart further testified that he had not participated
in any work assignments or light-duty assignments while incarcerated.
When Stewart was initially approved for D.I.B. in 2008, he was diagnosed with a closed
head injury, a back injury, a cervical strain, migraines headaches, PTSD, and hearing loss.
Stewart received treatment for PTSD through the Northern Indiana Healthcare VA from 2009
through 2011. After receiving D.I.B., the S.S.A. subsequently undertook a periodic review of
Stewart’s disability status. Stewart continues to argue that he is in fact disabled. The record
before this Court documents Stewart’s medical history dating from his C.P.D. of August 6, 2008,
and includes records prior to and subsequent to Stewart’s medical improvement date of
November 15, 2011. The record also includes medical reports from consultative psychological
disability examiners, medical records from the VA, the State agency psychological opinions, and
a confidential health summary and case analysis from the Social Security Administration.
Records from Stewart’s treatment at the Northern Indiana Healthcare VA show that
Stewart was assessed with a fifty percent service-connected disability for PTSD, a fifty percent
service-connected disability for migraine headaches, a ten percent service-connected disability
for lumbar sacral or cervical strain, a ten percent service-connected disability for tinnitus, a zero
percent service-connected disability for impaired hearing, and eighty percent service-connected
disability overall. [DE 10 at 462]. Stewart maintained treatment for his PTSD through the
Northern Indiana Healthcare VA until 2011 when he stopped responding to its notifications to
On January 20, 2012, as part of the re-evaluation of his D.I.B. eligibility, Dr. Bradford J.
Eaton, a consultative examining psychologist, conducted a psychological evaluation of Stewart.
Dr. Eaton’s exam notes show that Stewart was fully oriented during the examination and that he
maintained logical thought processes. Dr. Eaton observed that Stewart carried a cane but did not
rely on it. Dr. Eaton also observed that Stewart was able to solve mental arithmetic problems,
recalled short-term and remote memory, complete word analogies, and interpret proverbs.
Stewart informed Dr. Eaton that he was able to maintain daily function, was independent, and
had no difficulties with routine living tasks. Stewart also informed Dr. Eaton that he does arts
and crafts and was currently making camouflage clothing for hunters. Dr. Eaton diagnosed
Stewart with PTSD and a GAF score of 65. Finally, Dr. Eaton concluded that Stewart appeared
capable of managing his finances independently.
On February 3, 2012, Dr. Stacia Hill, the State Agency psychological consultant,
completed a Psychiatric Review Technique Form in which she opined as to Stewart’s mental
Residual Functional Capacity (“R.F.C.”). Dr. Hill concluded that Stewart was cognitively
capable of unskilled work-like tasks on a sustained basis without special considerations in a
competitively, though not necessarily highly social, work environment. Dr. Hill also found that
Stewart had mild restrictions in activities of daily living, mild difficulty in social functioning,
moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace, and no episodes of decompensation
of extended duration.
On July 11, 2012, Mark Henson-Bohlen, a clinical Licensed Master Social Worker who
had been working with Stewart at the South VA since June 22, 2012, wrote a letter on Stewart’s
behalf describing Stewart’s military history and opining that Stewart shows symptoms of PTSD.
Mr. Henson-Bohlen stated that Stewart had been deployed in Iraq and described his various
military duties. Mr. Henson-Bohlen also stated that Stewart was involved in combat situations.
Further, Mr. Henson-Bohlen opined that Stewart has symptoms of PTSD including nightmares,
flashbacks, fear of crowds, and panic attacks and that he was easily startled. Finally, Mr.
Henson-Bohlen stated that Stewart had headaches, stomach problems, and back pain.
During the February 2014, evidentiary hearing before the ALJ, Dr. Leon Fischer, a
board-certified family physician who had reviewed Stewart’s medical records, testified as an
impartial medical expert at the evidentiary hearing regarding Stewart’s work ability. Dr. Fischer
stated that Stewart should be able to lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five
pounds frequently as well as sit, stand, and walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday. Dr.
Fischer also stated that Stewart can frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl and
that the medical evidence did not establish any severe hearing difficulty. Further, Dr. Fischer
testified that Stewart’s current R.F.C. would be applicable back to at least 2011. Finally, Dr.
Fischer testified that based on Stewart’s R.F.C., he would be capable of meeting the physical and
mental demands of his past relevant work, and meet medium physical exertional work.
Dr. Jeffery Andert, an impartial psychological expert, then testified on Stewart’s mental
abilities. Dr. Andert’s opinion was based on his conclusion that Stewart suffered from an
affective disorder, as either a major depressive disorder or a depressive disorder not otherwise
specified. Dr. Andert testified that Stewart suffered from PTSD and an indicated potential
substance addiction disorder. Further, Dr. Andert found that Stewart’s impairment caused
limitations in his ability to work, including “a mild restriction of activities of daily living;
moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; moderate difficulties in concentration,
persistence, or pace . . . and one or two episodes of deterioration 1.” [DE 10 at 83-84]. Dr.
Andert found that Stewart could also perform, make decisions, and respond to simple and
repetitive tasks. Dr. Andert concluded that Stewart could not handle a fast-paced work
environment or a position with production quotas, could not work in environments where
supervisors monitored the employer for more than one-third of the day.
Lastly, Dr. Leonard M. Fisher 2, a non-examining vocational expert (“VE”), testified
The context of Dr. Andert’s quoted testimony, as reported in the hearing transcript, shows that Dr. Andert was
likely referring to periods of “decompensation” consistent with the Paragraph B criteria used to assess mental
The Court notes the similarity in names between the VE, Dr. Leon Fischer, and the impartial medical expert, Dr.
Leonard M. Fischer.
having reviewed Stewart’s record. Dr. Fisher identified alternative jobs, as listed in the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), that a person with Stewart’s R.F.C., age, and work
experience would be capable of performing. Dr. Fisher testified that Stewart had past work as a
janitor-maintenance, infantry-crewmember, and reconnaissance/radio operator citing DOT
382.664-010; DOT 378.367-010; and DOT 378.684-10. At the hearing, the ALJ presented a
number of hypotheticals to Dr. Fisher to complete an assessment of Stewart’s work capabilities.
Dr. Fisher opined that Stewart would be able to perform medium unskilled work in occupations
such as cleaner-industrial, laborer-stores, and cleaner-manufactured buildings citingee DOT
381.687-018; DOT 922.687-058; DOT 869.687-018.
The ALJ’s Determination
After the February 2014 hearing, the ALJ issued a written decision on his findings. The
ALJ applied the eight-part test prescribed through Social Security regulations in reaching his
conclusion that as of November 15, 2011, Stewart was no longer disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §
At Step One, the ALJ identified the Comparison Point Decision (“C.P.D.”) as August 6,
2008 when Stewart was originally found disabled. The ALJ found that Stewart’s medically
determinable impairments included a closed head injury, degenerative disc disease, migraines,
hearing loss, and PTSD. Further, the ALJ found that Stewart’s disability ended as of November
15, 2011. The ALJ cited to both testimony and a financial statement, which showed that Stewart
was not receiving D.I.B. The ALJ also found that Stewart was not engaged in substantial gainful
activity (“S.G.A.”). At Step Two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence established that
Stewart had not developed any additional impairments from the C.P.D. through November 15,
2011. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Stewart had the same impairments that he had at the time
Then at Step Three, the ALJ applied the medical improvement standard and determined
that Stewart did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed impairment found
in Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404, App. 1. Next at Step Four, the ALJ determined that Stewart
had experienced a medical improvement as of November 15, 2011. Further, the ALJ considered
the entire medical record, determined Stewart’s R.F.C. as of November 15, 2011, and determined
that Stewart’s medical improvement related to his ability to work because it resulted in an
increase in Stewart’s R.F.C. The ALJ skipped Step Five, because the medical improvement was
related to Stewart’s ability to do work, and therefore a determination of any medical
improvement exceptions was not necessary.
In Step Six, the ALJ found Stewart’s impairments were considered severe. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1521. The ALJ found that Stewart’s impairments cause more than minimal limitation in
his ability to perform basic work activities. Finally, at Step Seven, the ALJ determined based on
Stewart’s R.F.C., age, education, and past work experience that he could perform past relevant
work as a janitor-maintenance. The ALJ determined that this type of work does not require the
performance of work-related activities precluded by Stewart’s assessed R.F.C. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1565. The ALJ concluded that Stewart can make a successful adjustment to other work,
and found that Stewart was not disabled.
Appeals Council’s Decision
Stewart appealed the ALJ’s decision to the SSA Appeals Council. On June 3, 2015, the
Appeals Council denied Stewart’s request for review finding that the information provided by
Stewart did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ’s decision. Since the review by the
Appeals Counsel is the final decision of the Commissioner, Stewart now seeks judicial review.
Standard of Review
The Social Security Act authorizes judicial review of the final decision of the 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 is more than a mere scintilla but may be less than the weight of the
evidence. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). Therefore, substantial
evidence is simply "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 28 L. Ed. 2d
842 (1971); Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001).
In reviewing of the Commissioner’s findings, a district court will apply a standard of
deferential review to the ALJ factual findings and will affirm if substantial evidence support the
findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Haynes v. Barhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th. Cir. 2005). The
district court will not reconsider facts, re-weigh evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, decide
questions of credibility, nor substitute its own judgment for the ALJ. Haynes v. Barhart, 416
F.3d 621, 626 (7th. Cir. 2005). Therefore, the district court will use judicial review only to
determine whether the ALJ presented a “logical bridge” between the evidence and his findings.
O’Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 615,618 (7th. Cir. 2010).
The SSA regulations provide an eight-part test to determine whether a claimant’s
disability continues or ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594. The review of disability may stop at any
step if sufficient evidence shows the claimant cannot engage in S.G.A. At the first step, the ALJ
determines if the claimant is engaging in S.G.A. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1). If the claimant is
engaged in S.G.A., then the disability has ended. Id. At the second step, the ALJ determines if
the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments meets the Listing found in appendix 1
of the statute. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(2). If the claimant does have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets a Listing, then the disability will be found to continue.
Id. At the third step, the ALJ determines if the claimant has had a medical improvement. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(3). If a medical improvement exists, as shown by a decrease in medical
severity, then the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. If there has been no decrease in medical
severity, there has been no medical improvement and the ALJ proceeds to step five. Id.
At Step Four, the ALJ starts with an assessment of the claimant’s R.F.C. in order to
determine if the claimant’s medical improvement is related to his ability to do work, or in other
words, whether there has been an increase in the claimant’s R.F.C. based on the impairment(s)
that were present at the time of the most recent favorable medical determination. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1594(f)(4). If the claimant’s medical improvement is not related to his ability to do work,
then the ALJ proceeds to step five. Id. However, if the medical improvement is related to the
claimant’s ability to do work, then the ALJ moves on to step six. Id.
At Step Five, the ALJ determines whether any group exceptions to medical improvement
apply. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(5). If no exceptions apply, then the disability will be found to
continue. Id. If an exception from the first group of exceptions applies, the ALJ proceeds to step
six. Id. Yet when an exception from the second group of exceptions applies, the claimant’s
disability ends. Id. The second group of exceptions to medical improvement may be considered
at any point in this test. Id.
At Step Six, the ALJ determines whether all of the claimant’s current impairments in
combination are severe under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521; 404.1594(f)(6). The severity analysis
involves consideration of the claimant’s current impairments and the impact of the combination
of those impairments on his ability to function. Id. If the R.F.C. shows a significant limitation
of the claimant’s ability to do basic work activities, then the ALJ proceeds to step seven. Id.
Impairments will not be considered severe in nature when the evidence shows that all current
impairments in combination do not significantly limit the claimant’s physical or mental abilities
to do basic work activities. Id. If the claimant’s impairments are found not to be severe, the
claimant’s disability ends. Id.
At Step Seven the ALJ assess the claimant’s current ability to do S.G.A. by assessing the
claimant’s R.F.C. based on all the claimant’s current impairments and then considering whether
the claimant can still perform work he did in the past. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(7). If the
claimant can perform his past work, then his disability has ended Id. If the claimant cannot do
the past work, then the ALJ proceeds to Step Eight. Id. At Step Eight, the ALJ determines
whether the claimant can do other work given his R.F.C., age, education, and past work
experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(8). If the claimant can do other work based on these
factors, then the claimant’s disability ends. Id. If the claimant cannot, then the claimant’s
disability continues. Id.
An exception to this test is applied and invokes Step Eight when the evidence in a
claimant’s file about past relevant work is not sufficient to make a finding under Step Seven. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(9). If the claimant can adjust to other work based on their age, education,
and R.F.C., then the claimant is no longer disabled. Id. If the claimant is unable to adjust to
other work, or if 20 C.F.R. § 404.1561 applies, then the ALJ determines whether the claimant
can perform past relevant work. Id.
Issues for Review
Stewart seeks remand of the ALJ’s decision, arguing that: (1) the ALJ failed to evaluate
the entire period of disability subject to adjudication; (2) the ALJ failed to properly apply the
Medical Improvement Standard; (3) the vocational conclusion is not supported by substantial
evidence; and (4) the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion evidence in determination of
The ALJ’s Decision was Consistent with Social Security Regulations in
Regards to Evaluate the Entire Time Period Subject to Adjudication
Stewart first argues that the ALJ’s decision that his disability ended on November 15,
2011, was inconsistent with SSR 13-3p 3, which sets forth the period subject to adjudication.
Specifically, Stewart asserts that the ALJ did not make any legal findings relating to the period
of November 16, 2011, through March 28, 2014, the date of his opinion. [DE 10 at 18-30].
Stewart argues that SSR 13-3p requires the ALJ to consider evidence from the timeframe of his
disability through the date on which the appeal determination or decision is made. Stewart states
that a plain reading of the decision demonstrates that the ALJ did not adjudicate through the
published date of March 28, 2014, as required.
Published in 2013, SSR 13-3p adopted a new nationwide policy regarding the time period
of adjudication for reviewing a decision to cease D.I.B. due to an improvement of the claimant’s
The SSA publishes Notices of Social Security Ruling (SSR) which outline determinations, decisions, and
interpretations of the law and regulations made at all levels of administrative adjudication, including federal court
decisions, SSA Commissioner’s decisions, and opinions of the Office of the SSA General Counsel. Although SSRs
do not have the same force and effect as statutes or regulations, they are binding on all SSA components. Lauer v.
Apfel, 169 F.3d 489, 492 (7th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 402.35(b)(1)).
medical condition. SSR 13-3p states that “the adjudicator reviewing the medical cessation
determination or decision will decide whether the beneficiary is under a disability through the
date of the adjudicator’s determination or decision.” The reviewing court will “generally defer
to an agency’s interpretations of the legal regime it is charged with administrating.” Liskowitz v.
Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 744 (7th. Cir. 2009).
The issue here is whether the ALJ considered evidence of Stewart’s disability for the
whole period from the time of medical cessation until March 28, 2014, when the ALJ’s opinion
was published. Stewart references that the ALJ found the Stewart’s disability ended November
15, 2011. Further, Stewart states that the ALJ determined Stewart’s R.F.C. as of November 15,
2011. In the opinion, the ALJ did not explicitly state that the period subject to adjudication was
between the C.P.D. and the date of the decision. However, the ALJ acknowledged the period
subject to adjudication at the evidentiary hearing on February 26, 2014, where he said
So what we’ll be looking it is whether there has been any medical improvement.
To do that, we’ll be look [sic] at the situation back on [the comparison point date
of] 8/6/2008 and the situation to now.
[DE 10 at 39].
Further, the ALJ’s decision shows that he applied the correct period through his citations
to relevant evidence. For instance, the ALJ cited to the opinions of expert witnesses, a functional
report completed by Stewart, and other medical records compiled after November 15, 2011. The
ALJ also cited to CT scans from October 25, 2012. Additionally, the ALJ explained that
weighed testimonial evidence substantially in light of medical evidence already provided on the
record. [DE 10 at 26-27]. The ALJ also cited to the January 27, 2012, psychiatric evaluation
from the VA Clinic of Northern Indiana. If the ALJ had intended to adjudicate using evidence
from the C.P.D. only through November 15, 2011, then the decision would not include evidence
entered into the record at the evidentiary hearing and from medical evidence dated past
November 15, 2011.
Therefore, the ALJ analyzed Stewart’s disability from the date of cessation, November
15, 2011, through March 28, 2014, the date of his decision. For the forgoing reasons, the ALJ’s
decision is consistent with the period subject to adjudication required under SSR 13-3p.
The ALJ Properly Applied the Medical Improvement Standard
Stewart also asserts that the ALJ improperly applied the medical improvement standard
in the analysis of the eight-part test. Stewart argues that the ALJ did not cite any evidence in the
section of his decision addressing the medical improvement to show the determination of the
C.P.D. and therefore, concluded that the ALJ did not apply the correct medical improvement
standard. [DE 10 at 6-7]. Further, Stewart argues that the incorrect application of the medical
improvement standard led the ALJ to determine an inaccurate R.F.C. for Stewart. In response
the Commissioner argues that the ALJ found Stewart medically improved and explained the
reasoning throughout the R.F.C. findings. The Commissioner also argues that the Court should
review the ALJ’s decision as a whole to see that the ALJ explained his reasoning for the medical
improvement in other sections of his decision.
At Step Three of the eight-part test, the ALJ applies the medical improvement standard to
determine whether a medical improvement is shown by a decrease in medical severity from the
time of the most recent favorable medical decision that the claimant currently is or was disabled.
20 C.F.R § 404.1594(f)(3). The medical improvement standard helps the ALJ determines a
claimant’s R.F.C. When evaluating whether a decrease in medical severity exists, the ALJ looks
for changes, or improvement, in the symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings associated with
the claimant’s impairments. 20 C.F.R § 404.1594(b)(1).
Here, the Commissioner is correct that the ALJ explained his application of the Medical
Improvement Standard in other sections of his decision rather than in the Step Three section.
However, ALJs need not repeat analyses in multiple section of the same opinion. Curvin v.
Colvin, 778 F.3d 645,650 (7th. Cir. 2015). Moreover, courts should review ALJs decisions as a
whole to fulfill their obligation to determine whether a logical bridge was formed between the
evidence cited and the ALJ’s conclusions. Id.; see also Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 370 n.5
(7th Cir. 2004); Orlando v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 209, 213 (7th Cir. 1985). Therefore, as long as the
ALJ supports his conclusions regarding a particular issue—in this case the application of medical
improvement standard—somewhere in the decision, then the ALJ’s analysis will not be
In the sub-section of the ALJ’s decision addressing the Medical Improvement Standard as
it related to Stewart, the ALJ initially cited various evidentiary material to lead to his conclusion
that as of November 15, 2011, a medical improvement had occurred. The ALJ stated that the
medical record shows Stewart used prescription medicine to manage his mental impairments.
The ALJ also stated that a VA Clinic medical report showed that Stewart did not have any
residual effects from his closed head injury. Further, the ALJ stated that Stewart testified to
having fewer nightmares when on prescribed medicine. Finally, the ALJ referenced mental
status examinations where Stewart was fully oriented and showed no signs of thought disorders.
Throughout his decision, the ALJ used multiple sources of evidence such as the
psychological consultative examination and the VA medical records. While the ALJ did not
include specific citations in the Medical Improvement Standard sub-section of his decision, he
supported his medical improvement findings with the same evidence he used to determine
Stewart’s R.F.C. In addition, the ALJ referenced a CT scan report, which stated that Stewart’s
head was normal, earlier in the decision. Further, the ALJ again cited to the psychological
evaluation by Dr. Eaton, which he previously referenced and which concluded that Stewart’s
thought process were logical, sequential, and relevant and did not demonstrate evidence of
formal thought disorder. The ALJ also cited a letter from the VA Clinic of Battle Creek stating
that Stewart did not suffer from polysubstance abuse and that his PTSD symptoms had
The ALJ’s reliance on multiple references to various evidence in Stewart’s medical
record throughout his decision shows that he applied the Medical Improvement Standard as
required. Accordingly, the ALJ supported his conclusion that Stewart had a decrease in medical
severity with substantial evidence that formed a logical bridge to his conclusion.
The ALJ Properly Weighed the Opinion Evidence
Stewart also challenges the ALJ’s decision arguing that he improperly weighed the
opinion evidence by giving the most weight to the non-examining witnesses’ opinions without
properly analyzing the treating therapist’s opinion. First, Stewart contends that the ALJ should
have given more weight to the letter written by Stewart’s clinical social worker, Mark HensonBohlen. Stewart states that reversible error occurred because the ALJ did not discuss what
weight he gave Henson-Bohlen’s letter, which assessed Stewart’s current condition. Second,
Stewart asserts that the ALJ did not properly weigh the evidence of the service-connected
disability assessment made by the VA.
Weight of Social Worker’s Opinion
When assessing disability, the ALJ will consider all relevant evidence in the record, even
if the evidence is not from an acceptable medical source or a nonmedical source. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527. The ALJ must explain why he does not credit evidence that would support strongly
a claim of disability, or why other evidence outweighs such evidence. O’Connor-Spinner v.
Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 621 (7th. Cir. 2010) (citing Giles ex rel. Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 488
(7th Cir. 2007); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888-89 (7th Cir. 2001)). Therefore, the ALJ’s
decision should articulate an analysis that encompasses the weight of all evidence cited when
Here, the ALJ cited to both medical and nonmedical opinions and articulated why he
weighted each opinion as he did.
As to the nonmedical opinion of Stewart’s father Jim, the ALJ only gave it little weight
explaining that it was inconsistent with the majority of the medical record. Further, the ALJ
discounted Stewart’s own testimony based on the CT scan that showed he no longer suffered
from the effects of a closed head injury. The ALJ also found Stewart’s testimony less credible
based on inconsistencies with the totality of medical evidence on the record.
In considering the medical opinions in the record, the ALJ gave significant weight to the
opinion of Dr. Fischer, the impartial medical expert, because of his familiarity with the disability
process and the consistency of his opinions with the record as a whole. However, the ALJ gave
only little weight to the opinion of Dr. Corcoran, the State agency medical consultant at the
reconsideration level, who opined on February 4, 2012, that Stewart’s physical impairments were
“non-severe”. In so doing, the ALJ relied upon medical records from the VA Clinic of Battle
Creek to find that Stewart’s degeneration of his spine, hearing loss, closed head injury, and
migraines actually qualified as severe physical impairments.
Despite his consideration of these opinions, the ALJ did not explicitly articulate the
weight given to Henson-Bohlen’s letter in his capacity as Stewart’s social worker. However, the
evidence set forth in the letter is consistent with other evidence in the record to which the ALJ
clearly gave little weight. The Commissioner argues that the Court should not even consider
Henson-Bohlen’s letter because it did not actually contain an opinion about Stewart’s R.F.C. or
disability. The letter simply stated Stewart has PTSD as evidenced by his nightmares,
flashbacks, fear of crowds, panic attacks, and the fact that he is easily startled. The letter also
noted that Stewart has headaches, stomach problems, and back pain. All of those symptoms
were reported in the medical records from the VA Clinic of Northern Indiana. For example, both
Henson-Bohlen’s letter and the psychiatric evaluation from the VA Clinic of Northern Indiana
state that Stewart was diagnosed with PTSD and had a Global Assessment of Functioning
(“GAF”) score of 50. Accordingly, the ALJ implicitly considered Henson-Bohlen’s by
referencing the same substantive information found in other medical evidence in the record.
Weight of VA Service Related Disability Assessment
Disability assessments from other governmental or nongovernmental agencies such as the
VA are not binding on the SSA when determining whether claimant is legally disabled so as to
qualify for D.I.B. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1504. 4 Here, the VA determined that Stewart is eightypercent disabled according to its standards, yet the VA’s determination does not establish that
Stewart is therefore entitled to D.I.B. See Allord v. Barnhart, 455 F.3d 818, 820 (7th Cir. 2006);
see also Bird v. Berryhill, 847 F.3d 911 (7th. Cir. 2017). In comparison to SSA disability
regulations, the factors used by the VA to assess disability require less proof of disability.
Further, there are differences in how the agencies evaluate claims, as the VA's evaluation is
strongly and uniquely pro-claimant rather than neutral. See 38 C.F.R. § 4.3; Hodge v. West, 155
This regulation was recently revised stated that “in claims filed on or after March 27, 2017, we will not provide
any analysis in our determination or decision about a decision made by any other governmental agency or a
nongovernmental entity about whether you are disabled . . . and entitled to benefits.” However, this revised
regulation was not in force at the time of Stewart’s medical improvement decision and need not be considered here.
F.3d 1356, 1362 (Fed. Cir. 1998). As a result, the ALJ was not required to weigh the VA’s
assignment of eighty percent disability to Stewart.
The ALJ’s Vocational Analysis is Supported by Substantial Evidence
Stewart’s final argument asserts that the vocational testimony of the vocational expert
(“VE”), Dr. Fisher, was flawed and does not support the conclusion that Stewart can work.
Specifically, Stewart contends that both his past relevant work and that the jobs the ALJ held
Stewart can supposedly perform are not compatible with his R.F.C. Further, Stewart argues that
the ALJ did not properly follow the procedures set forth in SSR 82-62 and 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1565(a) in his evaluation of Stewart’s past relevant work as a janitor.
SSR 82-62 regulates the procedure for determining a disability claimant’s capacity to do
past relevant work. Under SSR 82-62, an ALJ’s decision must contain findings of fact as to (1)
the claimant’s R.F.C., (2) the physical and mental demands of the past job or occupation, and (3)
whether the claimant’s R.F.C. would permit a return to his past job or occupation.
Here, the ALJ admittedly presented a perfunctory analysis without clear findings of fact
on each of these issues in finding that Stewart was capable of performing his past relevant work
as a janitor. The ALJ simply relied on the VE’s conclusion that Stewart had actually and
generally performed work as janitor since he was originally found disabled and while he was
receiving benefits. Indeed, Stewart had testified that he performed this job in 2007 and earned
$10,689.54 that year. However, Stewart did not cross the $10,800 earnings mark that was
required in 2007 for a job to qualify as S.G.A. See Substantial Gainful Activity, available at
https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/sga.html (last visited March 30, 2017). Arguably, the ALJ could
have completed the necessary findings of fact to support his conclusion that Stewart was no
longer disabled. He did not. Instead, he took the analysis one step further such that any error in
his past relevant work analysis is harmless.
The ALJ solicited testimony from the VE about whether significant jobs in the national
economy existed that a person with Stewart’s R.F.C. could perform. The ALJ found that Stewart
retained the R.F.C.
to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) as [Stewart] is able to
lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently and sit, stand
and/or walk for six hours in an eight hour workday, except: [Stewart] is able to
frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl or operate foot controls and
must avoid more than frequent exposure to humidity and wetness, pulmonary
irritants such as dust, fumes and gasses, extreme temperatures and vibrations and
moderate exposure to noise. In addition [Stewart] is able to understand,
remember and carry out simple instructions, make judgments on simple work
related decisions, respond to usual work situations and to changes in a routine
work setting, would have to be isolated from the public and tolerate occasional
contact with co-workers and supervisors and would need a workplace free from
tandem tasks, teamwork or production quotas.
[DE 10 at 23]. Stewart now argues that parts of the R.F.C. were incompatible with the jobs
identified by the VE.
In his testimony, the VE opined that a person of Stewart’s R.F.C., age, education, and
work experience would be able to perform medium unskilled work in occupations such as
cleaner-industrial (DOT 381.687-018), laborer-stores (DOT 922.687-058), and cleanermanufactured buildings (DOT 869.687-018). With regard to all three jobs, Stewart compares the
plain language of the R.F.C. assigned by ALJ to the tasks identified in the DOT numbers
associated with each of the three jobs. Without any legal citations or any reference to specific
testimony by the VE to support his plain language analysis, Stewart suggests that the ALJ has
not supported his conclusion that Stewart is capable of performing jobs available in the national
economy with substantial evidence.
Yet Stewart asks the Court to discount the VE’s testimony without recognizing that the
ALJ noted that his analysis was based upon the guidance in SSR 00-4p. SSR 00-4 discusses the
use of vocational expert evidence and directs ALJ’s to ask VEs if “there is any possible conflict
between [the] VE . . . evidence and information provided in the DOT.” If such a conflict exists,
the ALJ must then “obtain a reasonable explanation for the apparent conflict” and then explain
how he resolved the conflict in his decision. Id. Here, the ALJ explicitly asked the VE, “Is your
testimony consistent with the DOT and the companion publication, SCO?” [DE 10 at 104]. The
VE clearly responded “Yes” and then explained how his opinion on two limitations not
addressed in the DOT were based on his “experience in rehabilitation, talking with employers,
workshop that [he] attend[s] in the rehabilitation psychological field, and also talking with other
vocational experts.” Id. Most notably, Stewart’s counsel chose not to cross-examine the VE so
as to point out any potential inconsistencies, including those raised before this Court.
Therefore, the ALJ properly relied upon the VE’s testimony that Stewart was able to
perform the jobs of cleaner-industrial, laborer-stores, and cleaner-manufactured buildings despite
the limitations imposed by his R.F.C., age, education, and past work experience. Accordingly,
the ALJ’s vocational analysis is supported by substantial evidence.
For the above reasons, the Court finds that the ALJ formed a “logical bridge” between the
evidence and his conclusion that Stewart is no longer disabled. The ALJ (1) correctly analyzed
Stewart’s disability with evidence from the correct period of adjudication; (2) properly applied
the Medical Improvement Standard; (3) supported his vocational analysis with substantial
evidence; and (4) supported the weight given to opinion evidence with substantial evidence.
Accordingly, this Court AFFIRMS the ALJ’s finding that Stewart’s disability ended on
November 15, 2011, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [DE 22]. The Clerk is
instructed to term the case and enter judgment in favor of the Commissioner.
Dated this 31st day of March 2017.
_s/Michael G. Gotsch, Sr.____
Michael G. Gotsch, Sr.
United States Magistrate Judge
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