CAPERTON v. COLVIN
ENTRY on Judicial Review-The decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the Court's Entry. Signed by Judge William T. Lawrence on 3/30/2017.(CBU)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
TAMMY A. CAPERTON,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security,1
) Cause No. 1:16-cv-40-WTL-MPB
ENTRY ON JUDICIAL REVIEW
Plaintiff Tammy Caperton requests judicial review of the final decision of Defendant
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her
application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The Court rules as follows.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Caperton protectively filed her application for DIB in January 2013, alleging onset of
disability on January 22, 2013. The Social Security Administration initially denied Caperton’s
application on April 9, 2013. After Caperton timely requested reconsideration, the Social
Security Administration again denied her claim on June 11, 2013. Thereafter, Caperton
requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ held a hearing on
July 24, 2014, at which Caperton and a vocational expert testified. The ALJ issued her decision
denying Caperton’s DIB application on August 9, 2014. After the Appeals Council denied
Caperton’s request for review, she filed this action seeking judicial review.
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d), Nancy A. Berryhill automatically
became the Defendant in this case when she succeeded Carolyn Colvin as the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security on January 23, 2017.
II. EVIDENCE OF RECORD
The relevant evidence of record is amply set forth in the parties’ briefs and need not be
repeated here. Specific facts relevant to the Court’s disposition of this case are discussed below.
III. APPLICABLE STANDARD
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 her physical or mental limitations prevent her from doing not only her previous
work, but any other kind of gainful employment that exists in the national economy, considering
her 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 she is
not disabled, despite her medical condition and other factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step
two, if the claimant does not have a “severe” impairment (i.e., one that significantly limits her
ability to perform basic work activities), she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). 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 durational requirement; if so, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).
At step four, if the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). At step five, if the claimant can perform any other work in the national
economy, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
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. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008). In order to be affirmed, the
ALJ must articulate her analysis of the evidence in her decision; while she “is not required to
address every piece of evidence or testimony presented,” she must “provide an accurate and
logical bridge between the evidence and her conclusion that a claimant is not disabled.” Kastner
v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012). “If a decision lacks evidentiary support or is so
poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, a remand is required.” Id. (citation omitted).
IV. THE ALJ’S DECISION
The ALJ found at step one that Caperton had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since her alleged disability onset date. At step two, the ALJ determined that Caperton had the
severe impairment of rheumatoid arthritis and non-severe impairments of osteoarthritis of the
bilateral hands, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and adjustment disorder. The ALJ found at
step three that these impairments did not, individually or in combination, meet or equal the
severity of one of the listed impairments. The ALJ’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
determination was as follows:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can lift and carry up to 20 pounds
occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit for approximately 6 hours in an 8-hour
day; stand and walk approximately 6 hours in an 8-hour day; occasionally bend,
stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds; and frequently finger with the bilateral upper extremities.
R. at 81. The ALJ concluded at step four that Caperton could perform her past relevant work as
a vocational instructor. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Caperton was not disabled.
Caperton argues that the ALJ erred in several respects, each of which is addressed, in
A. Identification of Severe and Non-Severe Impairments
Caperton first argues that remand is required because the ALJ erred at step 2 when she
determined that Caperton’s only severe impairment was rheumatoid arthritis and that her
osteoarthritis of the bilateral hands, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and adjustment disorder
were not severe. However, “[t]he Step 2 determination is ‘a de minimis screening for groundless
claims’ intended to exclude slight abnormalities that only minimally impact a claimant’s basic
activities,” O’Connor-Spinner v. Colvin, 832 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting Thomas v.
Colvin, 826 F.3d 953, 960 (7th Cir. 2016)); see also Meuser v. Colvin, 838 F.3d 905, 910 (7th
Cir. 2016). The Seventh Circuit has categorized errors in determining an impairment’s severity
as harmless as long as the ALJ otherwise finds one severe impairment, continues through the
steps in the evaluation process, and “consider[s] all of [the claimant]’s severe and non-severe
impairments, the objective medical evidence, [the claimant’s] symptoms, and her credibility
when determining her RFC immediately after step 3.” Curvin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 645, 649 (7th
Cir. 2015); see also Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 591 (7th Cir. 2012) (“Deciding whether
impairments are severe at Step 2 is a threshold issue only; an ALJ must continue on to the
remaining steps of the evaluation process as long as there exists even one severe impairment.
Here the ALJ categorized two impairments as severe, and so any error of omission [at Step 2
regarding the severity of other impairments] was harmless.”) (emphasis in original) (citations
omitted). The failure to categorize some of Caperton’s impairments as severe at step 2, even if
erroneous, does not, by itself, require remand.
More problematic, however, is the ALJ’s finding that anxiety is not one of Caperton’s
medically determinable impairments.2 The ALJ recognized that Caperton “alleged functional
limitations secondary to anxiety,” but found that “there are no clinical findings to confirm a
medically determinable impairment.” R. at 82. Accordingly, the ALJ did not consider
Caperton’s alleged anxiety-related symptoms in arriving at her RFC, and may well have
considered the fact that Caperton claimed to have such symptoms as an indication that she lacked
credibility. However, as Caperton pointed out, the record is replete with references to
Caperton’s symptoms of anxiety, and Dr. William Shipley, a psychologist who completed a
Psychiatric Review Technique Form regarding Caperton for the state agency, found that
Caperton had the non-severe impairment of anxiety disorder. Id. at 97. The ALJ does not point
to any medical evidence to support her belief that necessary “clinical findings” relating to
anxiety are lacking, and her finding in that regard directly contradicts Dr. Shipley’s opinion—an
opinion to which the ALJ gave “the most weight” because it is “reasonably consistent with the
record as a whole.”3 Id. at 85. It was error for the ALJ to substitute her judgment for that of Dr.
Shipley’s in the absence of any contrary medical opinion. See Browning v. Colvin, 766 F.3d
702, 705 (7th Cir. 2014) (noting that administrative law judges are not permitted to “play
doctor”). Because this error resulted in the ALJ failing to consider Caperton’s anxiety-related
symptoms in her RFC determination, remand is required. On remand, the ALJ shall take care to
Caperton lists several additional impairments that are mentioned in her medical records
that she says the ALJ should have considered. Caperton makes no effort to explain how these
other impairments affect her, however, and it is “the claimant’s obligation to explain why certain
conditions are disabling.” Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 860 (7th Cir. 2014) (Pepper v. Colvin,
712 F.3d 351, 367 (7th Cir. 2013)).
The Commissioner notes, correctly, that the ALJ was not required to adopt the state
agency physicians’ opinions in their entirety. However, the ALJ was not permitted to ignore
parts of those opinions in favor of her own opinion without pointing to medical evidence to
support her conclusion.
consider—and articulate her consideration of—the effects of all of Caperton’s identified severe
and non-severe mental and physical impairments, in combination, on her RFC. See, e.g., Craft v.
Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 676 (7th Cir. 2008) (“When determining the RFC, the ALJ must consider
all medically determinable impairments, physical and mental, even those that are not considered
‘severe.’”). This includes an assessment of whether and to what extent Caperton’s mild
difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, and pace affect her ability to work.
B. Step 3 Determination
Caperton next argues that the ALJ’s analysis regarding whether her impairments meet or
equal a listing is inadequate in two respects. First, she argues that the ALJ erred by only
discussing Listing 14.09 when the state agency doctors considered several other listings. As the
claimant, Caperton “has the burden of showing that [her] impairments meet a listing, and [she]
must show that [her] impairments satisfy all of the various criteria specified in the listing.”
Ribaudo v. Barnhart, 458 F.3d 580, 583 (7th Cir. 2006). Because Caperton has not even
attempted to point to any evidence in the record that suggests that she satisfies any listing other
than Listing 14.09, she is not entitled to remand on that issue.
Caperton does point to evidence which she believes demonstrates that the ALJ erred in
finding that her rheumatoid arthritis does not meet or equal Listing 14.09. Some of this
evidence—for example, her treating physician’s assessment regarding her limitations on using
her hands, fingers, and arms, R. at 469 and 500—post-dates the state agency doctors’ review of
Caperton’s records. Indeed, the ALJ recognizes that the state agency doctors did not review the
entire record. That is problematic, because “[w]hether a claimant’s impairment equals a listing is
a medical judgment, and an ALJ must consider an expert’s opinion on the issue.” Barnett v.
Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 670 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(b); S.S.R. 96–6P at 3,
reinstating S.S.R. 83–19; and Farrell v. Sullivan, 878 F.2d 985, 990 (7th Cir. 1989)). On
remand, the ALJ shall obtain a medical opinion, based on all relevant evidence of record,
regarding whether Caperton meets or equals Listing 14.09.4
C. Treating Physicians’ Opinions
Finally, Caperton argues that the ALJ erred in failing to give her treating physicians’
opinions controlling weight pursuant to the treating physician rule, which applies to all claims
filed prior to March 27, 2017.
Under the Treating Physician Rule, 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.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 870 (7th Cir. 2000).
When controlling weight is not given, an ALJ must offer “good reasons” for
doing so, after having considered: (1) whether the physician examined the
claimant, (2) whether the physician treated the claimant, and if so, the duration of
overall treatment and the thoroughness and frequency of examinations, (3)
whether other medical evidence supports the physician’s opinion, (4) whether the
physician’s opinion is consistent with the record, and (5) whether the opinion
relates to the physician’s specialty. Larson v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 744, 749 (7th Cir.
2010) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
The Commissioner argues that “[i]n addition to thoroughly reviewing the medical
evidence, the ALJ relied upon the opinions of state-agency reviewing physicians Dr. Corcoran
and Dr. Brill, who both concluded that Plaintiff did not meet or medically equal any listed
impairment, specifically considering Listings §§ 12.04, 12.06, 12.07, 3.09, and 14.09.” Dkt. No.
13. However, the ALJ does not mention those opinions in the context of Listing 14.09, and, in
fact, all she said about them in her decision was that she gave them the “most weight.” As noted
in footnote 3 above, the Commissioner herself argues (correctly) that the ALJ “clearly did not
adopt those opinions in their entirety.” Dkt. No. 28 at 9-10. The ALJ does not identify those
parts of the opinions she did adopt, and because she does not explain which parts she did and did
not adopt, the Commissioner cannot rely on them in support of the ALJ’s decision. See, e.g.,
Hanson v. Colvin, 760 F.3d 759, 762 (7th Cir. 2014) (“[Securities and Exchange Commission v.]
Chenery [Corp., 332 U.S. 194 (1947)] requires that an agency’s discretionary order be upheld, if
at all, on the same basis articulated in the order by the agency itself.”). Further, while the
Commissioner correctly notes that Caperton’s treating physicians did not opine that Caperton
met or equaled Listing 14.09, that is hardly surprising, as treating physicians are not expected to
be familiar with the complex regulatory system that governs disability benefits. The question is
not whether the treating physicians opined about Listing 14.09, but rather whether their opinions
and the other medical evidence of record supports a finding that the listing is met or equaled.
Brown v. Colvin, 845 F.3d 247, 252 (7th Cir. 2016). With regard to the opinions of Caperton’s
two treating rheumatologists about her physical limitations, the ALJ failed to articulate
consideration of each of these factors; rather, she determined that the opinions were entitled to
little weight because, in the ALJ’s opinion, they were not consistent with the physicians’
treatment notes. The ALJ should review this determination on remand, ensuring that she does
not succumb to the temptation to “play doctor” and instead elicits a medical opinion about
whether the inconsistencies she perceives are, in fact, inconsistencies.
D. Step 5 Determination
One final note is in order. While Caperton does not raise this issue, the Court is troubled
by the ALJ’s finding that Caperton’s past relevant work as a trainer at a fast food restaurant is the
equivalent of a “vocational instructor” as that job is defined in the Dictionary of Occupational
Titles. It is not, and the vocational expert did not testify that it was, but rather that it was “as
close as [she] could get to Caperton’s training job” because “the DOT is so outdated.” R. at 63,
64. The job of vocational instructor is defined in the DOT as:
Teaches vocational training subjects to students in public or private schools or in
industrial plants: Organizes program of practical and technical instruction,
including demonstrations of skills required in trade, and lectures on theory,
techniques, and terminology. Instructs students in subject areas, such as
mathematics, science, drawing, use and maintenance of tools and equipment,
codes or regulations related to trade, and safety precautions. Plans and supervises
work of students, individually or in small groups, in shop or laboratory. Tests and
evaluates achievement of student in technical knowledge and trade skills. May be
identified according to trade or theory taught or type of establishment in which
training is conducted, such as plumbing, electronics, or dental assistance. May
place students in job training. May teach students with disabilities. May be
required to have certification from state.
DOT Code 097.221-010. This is a far cry from providing on-the-job training to new employees
at a fast food restaurant. There is no indication that Caperton has the education or skills
necessary to do the job described in the DOT, which clearly requires more than simply showing
a new employee how to do a specific job. The ALJ should reexamine this issue on remand.
For the reasons set forth above, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and
this case is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the
SO ORDERED: 3/30/17
Hon. William T. Lawrence, Judge
United States District Court
Southern District of Indiana
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