JONES v. COLVIN
ENTRY on Judicial Review - The ALJ in this case satisfied her obligation to articulate the reasons for her decision, and that decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. ***SEE ENTRY***. Signed by Judge William T. Lawrence on 7/1/2014.(JKS)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
RODNEY D. JONES,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security
) Cause No. 1:13-cv-764-WTL-DML
ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
Plaintiff Rodney D. Jones requests judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denying his
application for Social Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the
Act”). The Court rules as follows.
Disability is defined as “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by
reason of a medically determinable mental or physical impairment which can be expected to
result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least
twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In order to be found disabled, a claimant must
demonstrate that his physical or mental limitations prevent him from doing not only his previous
work, but any other kind of gainful employment which exists in the national economy,
considering his age, education, and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner employs a five-step
sequential analysis. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity he is
not disabled, despite his medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). At
step two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment (i.e., one that significantly limits
his ability to perform basic work activities), he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At
step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of
impairments meets or medically equals any impairment that appears in the Listing of
Impairments, 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, and whether the impairment meets the twelvemonth duration requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(iii). At step four, if the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is
not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other
work in the national economy, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).
In reviewing the ALJ’s decision, the ALJ’s findings of fact are conclusive and must be
upheld by this court “so long as substantial evidence supports them and no error of law
occurred.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). “Substantial evidence
means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion,” id., and this court may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that
of the ALJ. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997). The ALJ is required to
articulate only a minimal, but legitimate, justification for her acceptance or rejection of specific
evidence of disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). In order to be
affirmed, the ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in her decision; while “[s]he is not
required to address every piece of evidence or testimony,” she must “provide some glimpse into
her reasoning . . . [and] build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to her
conclusion.” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176.
After his application for SSI was denied the first time due to insufficient evidence, Mr.
Jones filed a second SSI request on April 17, 2012, alleging he became disabled on January 1,
1995. In his application for benefits, Mr. Jones alleged that he was disabled because of bipolar
disorder, diabetes, and hypertension. Mr. Jones’ application was denied initially on June 4,
2012, and again upon reconsideration on August 21, 2012. Following the denial upon
reconsideration, Mr. Jones requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). A hearing, during which Mr. Jones was represented by counsel, was held in front of
ALJ Monica LaPolt on February 4, 2013. The ALJ issued her decision denying Mr. Jones’ claim
on February 21, 2013. The Appeals Council upheld the ALJ’s decision and denied Mr. Jones’
request for review on March 26, 2013. This action for judicial review ensued, thereby rendering
the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner and subject to judicial review.
On January 2, 2008, Mr. Jones attended group therapy at the Wabash Valley Correctional
Facility where he was an inmate. Mark Popovich, a licensed mental health counselor, noted that
Mr. Jones suffered from diabetes and benign hypertensive heart disease. Popovich opined that
Mr. Jones did not express suicidal or homicidal ideation. Mr. Jones’ Global Assessment
Functioning (“GAF”) score was noted as 60. R. at 244-45.
On January 15, 2008, Popovich noted Mr. Jones’ GAF score as 62. He also noted that
Mr. Jones had “explosive aggressive outbursts disproportionate to precipitating event.” Id. at
252-53. On February 12, 2008, Popovich noted Mr. Jones’ GAF score as 65 and also noted that
Mr. Jones had impulse control problems. Id. at 275-76. Popovich continued to see Mr. Jones
throughout the spring of 2008, and he noted that Mr. Jones’ GAF scores ranged from 60 to 75.
On March 11, 2008, Debra Hric, RN, saw Mr. Jones. She noted that he had no disability
and was capable of performing activities of daily living. She also noted that he was free of
illness or injury and free of physical, mental, or emotional impairment. Id. at 289-91. On
February 3, 2009, Lesa Wolfe, LPN, saw Mr. Jones. She noted that he had no disability and was
capable of performing activities of daily living. She also noted that he demonstrated an
appropriate degree of knowledge and motivation and was able to perform self-care. Id. at 392-94.
On February 9, 2010, Ms. Wolfe saw Mr. Jones again and noted that he had no disability and
was capable of performing activities of daily living. Id. at 442.
In April 2010, Mr. Jones was released on parole from prison. On June 16, 2010, he was
seen at the Midtown Community Mental Health Center Crisis Intervention Unit (“CIU”) as a
walk-in patient because he did not “want to be around people.” He reported that he was
experiencing a lot of changes, could not sleep, felt like he was back in prison, and had been
easily irritated since his release. Id. at 484-85.
On June 9, 2010, Mr. Jones saw Dr. Sue Ellen Gaebler. Dr. Gaebler noted that Mr. Jones
had diabetes and high blood pressure. She conducted a foot exam and recommended a podiatry
consultation. Id. at 493. On July 7, 2010, Mr. Jones returned to Dr. Gaebler. He reported feeling
stressed because he was looking for a job and attempting to adjust to life outside of prison. Id. at
492. On August 4, 2010, Mr. Jones returned to Dr. Gaebler. He reported feeling better but noted
that he had a lot on his mind. Id.
On June 30, 2010, Mr. Jones was seen at Midtown Community Mental Health Center
(“Midtown”) for an intake. He reported that he had always experienced a depressed mood, mood
swings, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, and irritability. It was noted that he had been
diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder with mixed anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse. Id. at
467. On July 8, 2010, Mr. Jones saw Dr. Kathryn Eschmann. She noted that his mood was
depressed and he was irritable. She further noted that his symptoms were consistent with bipolar
disorder. She prescribed Seroquel and Celexa. Id. at 565.
Mr. Jones was reincarcerated from September 2010 through December 2011. In January
2012, following his release from prison, Mr. Jones resumed his visits to Midtown. On January
12, 2012, Mr. Jones saw Dr. Eschmann. She noted that he heard voices, was paranoid, and felt
like people were plotting against him. She prescribed him Seroquel and Celexa. Id. at 544. On
February 15, 2012, Dr. Eschmann noted that Mr. Jones continued to feel depressed. Id. at 553.
On March 17, 2012, Mr. Jones went to the CIU walk-in clinic because he had a current
suicide plan. He reported that he tried to cut his wrist with a razor in a suicide gesture, but his
cousin stopped him. Mr. Jones also reported that he had hallucinations telling him to kill
himself. He reported that his depression worsened and he wanted to isolate himself from others.
His family reported that he had become withdrawn, quiet, and depressed, and that he had had an
increase in anger, frustration, and pressure in his voice. Id. at 518. As a result, he was
hospitalized at Wishard Hospital from March 17, 2012, to March 29, 2012.
Mr. Jones returned to prison again from April 2012 through October 2012. On May 23,
2012, Mr. Jones saw Ceola Berry, PhD, for a mental status examination. She noted that he had
problems with concentration, short-term memory, and judgment. She noted that his ability to
work would be primarily affected by his mood states and legal history. Id. at 678-80.
On May 30, 2012, Dr. Kari Kennedy, PsyD, a State Agency doctor, completed a
psychiatric review. She noted that Mr. Jones had affective and personality disorders, but his
impairments were not severe. Id. at 681-93. Mr. Jones did not undergo a physical examination
due to his incarceration.
At the hearing, Mr. Jones testified that he was homeless and lived in a mission. During
the day he would go to the library; he was trying to get his GED. He forgot to take his
medications about one or two days a week. He testified that he sometimes heard and saw things
that were not really there, and he noted that he heard voices that told him to kill himself and he
tried to do so, but his cousin stopped him. He testified that he had trouble concentrating and
getting along with his family and the guards when he was in jail. He testified that he was
paranoid and thought that people were going to hurt him.
Michael Blankenship, a vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. The ALJ asked the VE to
consider the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) for a hypothetical individual capable of the
full range of light or medium work, where the individual has a mental capacity to understand,
remember, and follow simple instructions within those parameters, and in the context of
performing simple, routine, repetitive, concrete, and tangible tasks; who can sustain attention and
the concentration skills sufficient to carry out work-like tasks with reasonable pace and
persistence; and who must have work involving only brief, superficial interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. The VE testified that such an individual could
perform work as a warehouse worker, hand packager, housekeeper, and a production assembler.
The VE testified that such an individual could not sustain employment if he needed to take
breaks of five to ten minutes every hour or if he needed to miss more than one day of work each
month on an ongoing basis. He also testified that an individual could sustain employment if he
was only off-task ten percent of the workday. He testified that an individual who engaged in
physical altercations with co-workers or public supervisors would likely be fired.
THE ALJ’S DECISION
The ALJ determined at step one that Mr. Jones had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since April 2, 2012, the alleged onset date. At steps two and three, the ALJ concluded
that Mr. Jones had the severe impairments of dysthymic disorder and adjustment disorder, but
that his impairments, singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equally a listed
impairment. At step four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Jones had the RFC to perform a full
range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional restrictions:
[T]he claimant has the mental capacity to understand, remember, and follow
simple instructions. Within these parameters and in the context of performing
simple, routine, repetitive, concrete, tangible tasks, the claimant is able to sustain
attention and concentration skills to carry out work-like tasks with reasonable
pace and persistence. Finally, the claimant is limited to only superficial,
incidental interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the public.
Id. at 15. Given that RFC, the ALJ determined that Mr. Jones could perform a range of work
that exists in the national economy, including a store laborer, hand packager, housekeeper, and
production assembler. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Jones was not disabled as
defined by the Act.
In his brief in support of his request for judicial review, Mr. Jones presents four issues for
the Court’s review. First, he argues that substantial evidence fails to support the ALJ’s
determination that he was not disabled because he did not meet or medically equal Listing 12.04.
Second, he argues that the ALJ’s failure to summon a psychologist to testify about his
psychiatric impairments requires reversal of the decision. Third, he argues that the ALJ’s
credibility determination is erroneous. And finally, he argues that substantial evidence fails to
support the ALJ’s Step Five determination that he was not disabled. The Court will address each
argument, in turn, below.
A. Lack of Substantial Evidence to Support the ALJ’s Decision
Mr. Jones argues that substantial evidence fails to support the ALJ’s determination that
his combined impairments of major depressive disorder, psychotic features of hallucinations and
paranoia, and GAF scores of 30 and below did not meet or equal Listing 12.04. Listing 12.04
requires the satisfaction of both paragraphs A and B or, in the alternative, that the requirements
in paragraph C are met. The ALJ found that Mr. Jones did not meet or equal the requirements in
paragraph B which require at least two of the following: 1) marked restriction of activities of
daily living; 2) marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; 3) marked difficulties in
maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or 4) repeated episodes of decompensation, each
of extended duration. 20 C.F.R. § 404, app. 1. A marked restriction means “more than moderate
but less than extreme” and “may arise when several activities or functions are impaired, or even
when only one is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is such as to interfere seriously
with [the claimant’s] ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a
sustained basis.” Id.
In her decision, the ALJ found that Mr. Jones had mild restrictions in activities of daily
living, noting that he performed simple volunteer work at the mission, went to the library to read,
was looking for work, was taking GED classes, and remembered to take his medications on most
days. R. at 14. The ALJ found that Mr. Jones had moderate difficulties in maintaining social
functioning, noting that Tanya Plummer, Mr. Jones’ sister, indicated that he does not go
anywhere on a regular basis and needs reminders for his doctor appointments. Id. The ALJ
found that Mr. Jones also had moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace,
noting that Ms. Plummer indicated that Mr. Jones has difficulty following written and spoken
instructions. Id. Finally, the ALJ noted that Mr. Jones had experienced no episodes of
decomposition of extended duration. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Mr. Jones did not meet
or equal the requirements of paragraph B.
In arguing that the ALJ erred in concluding that he did not meet or medically equal
Listing 12.04, Mr. Jones argues that she ignored or selectively considered a June 16, 2010,1
assessment and a July 8, 2010, evaluation. The Court disagrees. On June 16, 2010, Mr. Jones
was a walk-in patient at the CIU. During this visit, he reported that he was experiencing a lot of
changes, could not sleep, and felt like he was back in prison. Id. at 484. At the July 8, 2010,
evaluation, Dr. Eschmann noted that Mr. Jones was finding it hard to assimilate to society
following his release from prison. She noted that he reported that he had mood swings and felt
isolated, paranoid, and depressed. R. at 468.
It is well-established that an ALJ “is not required to address every piece of evidence or
testimony[.]” Dixon, 270 F.3d at 1176. However, in Mr. Jones’ case, the ALJ did not ignore
these visits—she implicitly considered them when she referenced other visits during this time
period and said that “the medical evidence does not indicate any psychological or psychiatric
treatment.” R. at 17. She further noted that during this time period, Mr. Jones’ treatment at
Midtown consisted of a care coordinator who was helping him apply for housing, entitlements,
and disability, and find appropriate community resources.
Mr. Jones also argues that the ALJ ignored or selectively considered evaluations from
January 11, 2012, January 12, 2012, and February 15, 2012, and his hospitalization in March
2012. The Court disagrees. The ALJ specifically mentioned the January 12, 2012, evaluation
and noted that Mr. Jones was having mood and sleep problems and trouble adjusting to society
after incarceration. Id. She also noted that during this time period, “the medical evidence
Plaintiff’s Brief mistakenly identifies the date of this visit as May 16, 2010. See Pl.’s Br.
indicates that the claimant experienced some symptoms of mood disorder after he was released
from prison; however, he attributed his symptoms to life stressors and difficulty assimilating to
society.” Id. As for Mr. Jones’ hospitalization, Mr. Jones points out that the ALJ did not
specifically mention the records from March 17, 18, 19, or 29, 2012. However, the ALJ did
discuss the hospitalization as a whole, noting that Mr. Jones had suicidal ideation and reported
feeling “overwhelmed with the stress and pressure of imprisonment and his legal compliance as a
violent offender.” Id. She also noted that he was treated with his standard prescription
medications and was discharged in a stable condition. Further, Mr. Jones has not identified what
specific evidence from these visits illustrates that he meets the requirements of paragraph B.
Instead, he merely lists the problems he reported during the evaluations. This is insufficient. See
Ribaudo v. Barnhart, 458 F.3d 580, 583 (7th Cir. 2006) (“Ribaudo [the claimant] has the burden
of showing that his impairments meet a listing, and he must show that his impairments satisfy all
of the various criteria specified in the listing.”).
Finally, Mr. Jones argues that the ALJ cited his GAF assessments above 50 but not those
below 50. As the Commissioner points out, Mr. Jones did not present evidence of consistent
GAF scores under 50, but instead identified a period of twelve days during which he was
hospitalized when his GAF scores ranged from 29 to 40. The ALJ did not discuss his GAF
scores from this time period, but she noted that the records from 2008 to 2010 indicated that Mr.
Jones’ GAF scores ranged from 60 to 75, R. at 16, and that following his hospitalization, Mr.
Jones’ GAF scores ranged from 75 to 80. Id. at 18. The Court does not believe that the ALJ’s
omission of the GAF scores from Mr. Jones’ twelve-day hospitalization warrants remand. GAF
scores, standing alone, do not automatically warrant a finding of disability or that a claimant
equals a Listing. See Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010) (“[N]owhere do the
Social Security regulations or case law require an ALJ to determine the extent of an individual’s
disability based entirely on his GAF score.”) (quoting Wilkins v. Barnhart, 69 Fed. Appx. 775,
780 (7th Cir. 2003)).
Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that while Mr. Jones does experience
some limitations due to his mental impairments, those limitations are, at most, moderate.
Accordingly, the Court sees no error with the ALJ’s Step Three determination.
B. Failure to Call a Medical Expert
According to Mr. Jones, “[t]he ALJ’s failure to summon a medical advisor (psychologist)
to testify whether the claimant’s combined psychiatric impairments medically equaled any Listed
impairment such as 12.04 requires reversal of the denial decision.” Pl.’s Br. at 25. The Court
Whether a claimant’s condition meets or medically equals a listed impairment is “strictly
a medical determination,” and “the focus must be on medical evidence.” Hickman v. Apfel, 187
F.3d 683, 688 (7th Cir. 1999). However, the Court gives deference to an ALJ’s decision about
how much evidence is sufficient to develop the record and what measures are needed to
accomplish that goal. See Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1098 (7th Cir. 2007); Kendrick v.
Shalala, 998 F.2d 455, 458 (7th Cir. 1993). Thus, an ALJ’s decision to call a medical expert is
discretionary, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(f)(2)(iii), and an ALJ is not required to consult a medical
expert if the medical evidence in the record is adequate to render a decision on the claimant’s
disability. See Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 504 (7th Cir. 2004).
Mr. Jones argues that the ALJ could not reasonably rely on the agency’s physicians’
reviews from October 21, 2010, June 4, 2012, and August 20, 2012,2 because they did not
consider all of the evidence. He specifically points to a January 9, 2013,3 letter from the
Indianapolis Public Schools’ Special Education Department and a middle school transcript to
indicate that he had been in special education. He argues, “[p]resumably if they had reviewed all
of the evidence they would have reasonably determined he was totally disabled.” Pl.’s Br. at 25.
The Court does not agree.
Further, the October 21, 2010, and June 4, 2012, reviews that Mr. Jones takes issue with
were not completed because there was insufficient evidence in the record. Similarly, the August
20, 2012, review was not completed because of Mr. Jones’ incarceration. And, despite Mr.
Jones’ arguments, the ALJ said she accorded little weight to the State Agency doctors’
assessments because “additional evidence admitted into the record indicates that the claimant
was more limited than originally thought.” R. at 20. Based on the foregoing, the ALJ did not err
in failing to call a medical expert to testify at the hearing.
C. The ALJ’s Credibility Determination
Mr. Jones next argues that the ALJ’s credibility determination is patently erroneous
because it is contrary to Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-7p and is intentionally vague. The
Court does not agree.
In determining credibility, an ALJ must consider several factors, including the claimant’s
daily activities, level of pain or symptoms, aggravating factors, medication, treatment, and
limitations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c); SSR 96–7p, and justify his finding with specific
Plaintiff’s Brief mistakenly identifies the date of this evaluation as August 21, 2012.
See Pl.’s Br. at 25.
Plaintiff’s Brief mistakenly identifies the date of this letter as January 29, 2013. See
Pl.’s Br. at 25.
reasons. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). “Furthermore, the ALJ may not
discredit a claimant’s testimony about [his] pain and limitations solely because there is no
objective medical evidence supporting it.” Id. (citations omitted). District courts “afford a
credibility finding ‘considerable deference,’ and overturn [a finding] only if ‘patently wrong.’”
Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006) (quoting Carradine v. Barnhart, 36
F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2004)).
Mr. Jones seems to fault the ALJ for using boilerplate language to explain her credibility
finding. Although the Court shares in the sentiments expressed by the Seventh Circuit regarding
the meaninglessness of Social Security “templates,” such as the one used here, see, e.g.,
Bjornson v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 640, 645-46 (7th Cir. 2012), the ALJ in this case conducted a
thorough credibility determination and identified several specific reasons for her finding.
Specifically, the ALJ noted that “[t]he medical evidence indicates that the claimant
experienced some symptoms of mood disorder after he was released from prison; however, he
attributed his symptoms to life stressors and difficulty assimilating to society.” R. at 17. Further,
the records showed that during his incarceration Mr. Jones did not receive ongoing psychiatric
treatment, and his mental status examinations were within normal limits. On March 11, 2008,
Ms. Hric, RN, noted that Mr. Jones was free of any physical, mental, or emotional impairment,
and on February 3, 2009, and February 9, 2010, Ms. Wolfe, RN, noted that he had no disability.
The ALJ noted that following his first release from prison, he began to visit Midtown for
“assistance with reintegrating back into the community” and the treatment he received there
consisted mostly of helping him apply for housing, entitlements, and disability. Id. She also
noted that there was no record of psychological or psychiatric treatment. Further, the ALJ noted
that following his next release from prison, treatment records indicate that he “experienced mood
swings due to life stressors such as legal compliance, employment search, homelessness, lack of
income, [and] need for entitlements[.]” Id. While Mr. Jones was hospitalized in March 2012,
due to suicidal ideation, the ALJ noted that he was discharged in a stable condition. In all, the
ALJ noted that the records showed that Mr. Jones’ treatment had been generally successful. Id at
The ALJ thoroughly discussed the record evidence despite her use of the boilerplate
language. The ALJ’s credibility finding was based on substantial evidence, and thus, the Court
does not find it to be patently wrong.
D. Step Five Determination
Finally, Mr. Jones argues that the ALJ erred when she determined that he was not
disabled because he could perform some jobs. The source of this error, Jones argues, is the
ALJ’s hypothetical question to the VE that impermissibly failed to account for his moderate
difficulties in social functioning and in concentration, persistence or pace. In support of his
argument, Jones analogizes this case to Yost v. Astrue, in which the decision of the
Commissioner was reversed because the Court “simply [could] not know whether the ALJ
sufficiently addressed the limitations of concentration, persistence and pace by instructing the
VE to consider only simple, unskilled jobs.” 2012 WL 2814373 at *20 (N.D. Ill. 2012). The
Court in Yost expressed concern that focusing on the skill level of the work did not fully address
the impact of mental limitations. Id.
Here, however, to the extent that the ALJ found Mr. Jones to have moderate restrictions
in social functioning and in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace, his RFC adequately
reflects those limitations in a way that distinguishes this case from Yost. Specifically, the ALJ
did not simply limit Mr. Jones to “unskilled work”; rather, she limited Mr. Jones to “simple,
routine, repetitive, concrete, tangible tasks” and to “superficial, incidental interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public.” R. at 15. The ALJ’s hypothetical was entirely
consistent with her RFC finding, and accordingly, the Court finds no reversible error.
The ALJ in this case satisfied her obligation to articulate the reasons for her decision, and
that decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, the decision of the
Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
SO ORDERED: 07/01/2014
Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge
United States District Court
Southern District of Indiana
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