HARDESTY v. COLVIN
ORDER - The Court VACATES the ALJ's decision denying Ms. Hardesty benefits and REMANDS this matter for further proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g) (sentence four). Final judgment will issue accordingly. (See Order.) Signed by Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson on 12/22/2016. (GSO)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
BETH A. HARDESTY,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security
Plaintiff Beth Hardesty applied for disability benefits under the Social Security Act on
September 3, 2013, on the basis of a series of physical and mental impairments. [Filing No. 13-2
at 22.] Her claim was denied initially, and a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge
James Norris on August 19, 2015. [Filing No. 13-2 at 22.] On September 9, 2015, the ALJ issued
an opinion concluding that Ms. Hardesty was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act.
[Filing No. 13-2.] The Appeals Council denied Ms. Hardesty’s request for review on January 5,
2016, making the ALJ’s decision the Commissioner’s final decision subject to judicial review.
[Filing No. 13-2 at 2.] Ms. Hardesty filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), asking
this Court to review her denial of benefits. [Filing No. 1.]
STANDARD OF REVIEW
“The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance benefits and
Supplemental Security Income to individuals with disabilities.” Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212,
214 (2002). “The statutory definition of ‘disability’ has two parts. First, it requires a certain kind
of inability, namely, an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Second it requires
an impairment, namely, a physical or mental impairment, which provides reason for the inability.
The statute adds that the impairment must be one that has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not
less than 12 months.” Id. at 217.
When an applicant appeals an adverse benefits decision, this Court’s role is limited to
ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence exists for
the ALJ’s decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). For
the purpose of judicial review, “[s]ubstantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quotation omitted). Because the ALJ
“is in the best position to determine the credibility of witnesses,” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668,
678 (7th Cir. 2008), this Court must afford the ALJ’s credibility determination “considerable
deference,” overturning it only if it is “patently wrong,” Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738
(7th Cir. 2006) (quotations omitted).
The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v),
evaluating the following, in sequence:
(1) whether the claimant is currently [un]employed; (2) whether the claimant has a
severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals one of
the impairments listed by the [Commissioner]; (4) whether the claimant can
perform [her] past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing
work in the national economy.
Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted) (alterations in original). “If
a claimant satisfies steps one, two, and three, [she] will automatically be found disabled. If a
claimant satisfies steps one and two, but not three, then [she] must satisfy step four. Once step
four is satisfied, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish that the claimant is capable of performing
work in the national economy.” Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).
After Step Three, but before Step Four, the ALJ must determine a claimant’s RFC by
evaluating “all limitations that arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are
not severe.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009). In doing so, the ALJ “may not
dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Id. The ALJ uses the RFC at Step Four to
determine whether the claimant can perform her own past relevant work and if not, at Step Five to
determine whether the claimant can perform other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e), (g). The
burden of proof is on the claimant for steps one through four; only at step five does the burden
shift to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.
If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ’s
decision, the Court must affirm the denial of benefits. Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668. When an ALJ’s
decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a remand for further proceedings is typically the
appropriate remedy. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An
award of benefits “is appropriate only where all factual issues have been resolved and the record
can yield but one supportable conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted).
RELEVANT BACKGROUND 1
Ms. Hardesty was born in 1975. [Filing No. 13-2 at 63.] She holds a GED, [Filing No.
13-2 at 63], and has been previously employed as a telemarketer and a store manager, [Filing No.
13-2 at 71]. As Ms. Hardesty’s mental impairments are the sole issues implicated by her claim,
the Court limits its discussion to those relevant facts.
Both parties provided detailed descriptions of Ms. Hardesty’s medical history and treatment in
their briefs. [Filing No. 19; Filing No. 24.] Because those descriptions implicate sensitive and
otherwise confidential medical information about Ms. Hardesty, the Court will simply incorporate
those facts by reference and only detail specific facts as necessary to address the parties’
Ms. Hardesty completed three consultative examinations regarding her mental health
impairments. Dr. Jared Outcalt examined Ms. Hardesty on March 29, 2014 and concluded that
she “appears capable of adequate relational, cognitive, and affective functioning in typical work
environments, though she would benefit from calmer settings that require less social interaction.”
[Filing No. 13-8 at 73.] Dr. Outcalt also concluded that Ms. Hardesty presented as able to “learn,
remember, and comprehend simple instructions.” [Filing No. 13-8 at 73.] Dr. David Fingerhut
examined Ms. Hardesty on September 15, 2014, and he concluded:
…her mental health symptoms do not appear to adversely affect her cognitive
functioning at this time. Her symptoms do appear to hinder her ability to complete
advanced daily functioning tasks, her interpersonal interactions, and her quality of
life at this time…[s]he has been able to work in the recent past and appears
cognitively capable of working.
[Filing No. 13-10 at 125.] And on June 2, 2015, Dr. Thomas Smith concluded that “[s]he is likely
to be very unstable in work or other situations where she is expected to perform certain duties
and/or interact with people.” [Filing No. 13-11 at 79.] Dr. Smith assessed Ms. Hardesty’s ability
to interact appropriately with supervisors and coworkers as “markedly” affected by her
impairments. A designation of “marked” impairment indicates that “[t]here is serious limitation
in this area. There is a substantial loss in the ability to effectively function.” [Filing No. 13-11 at
Dr. Jack Thomas testified at the hearing regarding Ms. Hardesty’s mental health
impairments. [Filing No. 13-2 at 8.] He summarized the findings of Dr. Outcalt and Dr. Fingerhut,
and he made no mention of Dr. Smith’s examination or report. [Filing No. 13-2 at 8-10.] Dr.
Thomas testified that Ms. Hardesty would have functional impairments, including that “[s]uch a
person could only have occasional contact with the general public, occasional contact with
coworkers, and occasional contact with supervisors.” [Filing No. 13-2 at 60.]
Using the five-step sequential evaluation set forth by the Social Security Administration in
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ ultimately concluded that Ms. Hardesty is not disabled.
[Filing No. 13-2 at 46.] The ALJ found as follows:
At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Hardesty meets the insured status
requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2009, and has not
engaged in substantial gainful activity 2 since her alleged onset date of October 6, 2008.
[Filing No. 13-2 at 24.]
At Step Two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Hardesty has the following severe
degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, asthma, irritable bowel
syndrome, obesity, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and borderline personality
disorder. [Filing No. 13-2 at 24.]
At Step Three of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Hardesty does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity
of one of the listed impairments. [Filing No. 13-2 at 25.] The ALJ considered various
listings, but ultimately found that Ms. Hardesty did not meet any of them. [Filing No.
13-2 at 25.]
After Step Three but before Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Hardesty has the RFC
to work as follows:
…perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)
except that she can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds
frequently; sit for 2 hours at one time and for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour
day; stand for 30 to 60 minutes at one time and for a total of 3 hours out of
an 8-hour day; and walk for 30 minutes at one time and for a total of 2 to 3
hours in an 8-hour day. She can push, pull, work overhead, and operate foot
Substantial gainful activity is defined as work activity that is both substantial (i.e. involves
significant physical or mental activities) and gainful (i.e. work that is usually done for pay or profit,
whether or not a profit is realized). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.972(a).
controls frequently bilaterally. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel,
and climb stairs using a handrail. She should never crouch, crawl, or climb
ladders or scaffolds. She should have no exposure to unprotected heights
or commercial driving. She can have frequent exposure to moving
mechanical parts. She can have occasional exposure to humidity, wetness,
dust, odors, fumes, respiratory irritants, and extremes of heat and cold. She
would require bathroom access in the workplace. Due to mental limitations,
she should have only occasional contact with the general public, coworkers
and supervisors. She could do only simple repetitive tasks that are routine
type tasks to where the expectations do not vary significantly from day to
day, and there should be no fast-paced tasks.
[Filing No. 13-2 at 30.]
At Step Four of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hardesty was not capable of
performing any past relevant work. [Filing No. 13-2 at 44.] The ALJ specifically found
that the skill levels of Ms. Hardesty’s past positions exceeded the demands of the RFC
assessed in his decision. [Filing No. 13-2 at 44.]
At Step Five of the analysis, the ALJ found that there are other jobs existing in the
national economy that Ms. Hardesty is able to perform, specifically as an inspector.
[Filing No. 13-2 at 45.]
Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hardesty is not disabled as defined
by the Social Security Act and, thus, is not entitled to the requested disability benefits.
[Filing No. 13-2 at 46.]
Ms. Hardesty presents multiple issues on appeal that she contends require this Court to
vacate the decision of the ALJ denying her request for disability benefits. [Filing No. 19.] First,
Ms. Hardesty argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ’s assessed RFC, because
it fails to incorporate her marked social restrictions and her limitation to following simple
instructions. [Filing No. 19 at 15-19.]
The Commissioner responds that the RFC adequately
accounts for all limitations and is supported by substantial evidence. [Filing No. 24.]
A claimant’s RFC “is the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her] limitations,” and is
assessed “based on all the relevant evidence in the claimant’s case record.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1545(a)(1). “In determining an individual’s RFC, the ALJ must evaluate all limitations that
arise from medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe, and may not
dismiss a line of evidence contrary to the ruling.” Villano, 556 F.3d at 563. Thus, the RFC must
be supported by substantial evidence in the record. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 873. The ALJ must
connect the evidence to the conclusion through an accurate and logical bridge. Stewart v. Astrue,
561 F.3d 679, 684 (7th Cir. 2009).
The ALJ here failed to provide a logical bridge connecting the evidence to his conclusion.
Dr. Smith concluded that Ms. Hardesty suffers from “marked” limitations in “interact[ing]
appropriately” with coworkers and supervisors. [Filing No. 13-11 at 80.] The ALJ’s decision
states that “Dr. Smith’s opinion is given great weight as it is consistent with the record as a whole.”
[Filing No. 13-2 at 42.] Yet, the ALJ also concluded that “[a]lthough the claimant has some
limitations in this area, the record does not establish that her ability to interact appropriately with
others or to function socially is markedly impaired.” [Filing No. 13-2 at 28.] And he concluded
that “[i]n social functioning, the claimant also has ‘moderate’ difficulties.” [Filing No. 13-2 at
28.] These statements directly contradict the evidence provided by Dr. Smith, whose opinion the
ALJ assigned “great weight.” [Filing No. 13-2 at 42.]
These conflicting statements leave this Court unable to discern the basis upon which the
ALJ connected the medical evidence to his conclusions. It is possible that the ALJ determined
that the opinions of some of the consultative examiners were more consistent with a finding of
“moderate” impairment, and he chose to assign more weight to those assessments than those of
Dr. Smith. However, the written decision does not explain the gap between the findings of Dr.
Smith, which were given great weight, and the ALJ’s contrary conclusions.
explanation, the decision fails to create a logical bridge between the evidence and the ALJ’s
The Commissioner argues that even if the ALJ had relied on Dr. Smith’s assessment of a
“marked” limitation in social functioning, the RFC adequately accounts for such a limitation by
including the language that Ms. Hardesty should have only “occasional contact” with supervisors
and coworkers. The Court disagrees. A finding of “marked” impairment in social function could
impact the ALJ’s RFC finding. According to SSR Ruling 85-15:
The basic mental demands of competitive, remunerative, unskilled work include
the abilities (on a sustained basis) to understand, carry out, and remember simple
instructions; to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work
situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work setting. A substantial loss of
ability to meet any of these basic work-related activities would severely limit the
potential occupational base. This, in turn, would justify a finding of disability
because even favorable age, education, or work experience will not offset such a
severely limited occupational base.
SSR 85-15 (S.S.A. 1985) (emphasis added). Without further explanation, the Court cannot
determine what factors influenced the ALJ’s findings, and in turn, whether substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s conclusion that the restriction of “occasional” contact with supervisors and
coworkers adequately accounts for Ms. Hardesty’s limitation. This issue requires remand for
further explanation by the ALJ.
Ms. Hardesty also argues that the ALJ failed to incorporate an RFC restriction that she was
limited to “simple instructions.” [Filing No. 19 at 23.] The Commissioner responds that the ALJ
included the restriction that Ms. Hardesty must be limited to “simple repetitive tasks that are
routine type tasks to where the expectations do not vary significantly from day to day,” and that
this restriction adequately addresses the “simple instructions” limitation. [Filing No. 24 at 14-15.]
In determining an individual’s RFC, “the ALJ must evaluate all limitations that arise from
medically determinable impairments, even those that are not severe, and may not dismiss a line of
evidence contrary to the ruling.” Villano, 556 F.3d at 563. Dr. Outcalt concluded that Ms. Hardesty
was able to “learn, remember, and comprehend simple instructions,” [Filing No. 13-8 at 73], and
the ALJ assigned “great weight” to Dr. Outcalt’s opinion [Filing No. 13-2 at 41]. The Court can
imagine scenarios in which “simple instructions” may not correspond to “simple tasks,” and courts
and Administrative Law Judges routinely list “simple tasks” and “simple instructions” separately
in their RFC determinations. See, e.g., Fuller v. Colvin, 2015 WL 5775820, at *3 (S.D. Ind. 2015).
On remand, the ALJ should address the “simple instruction” limitation and ensure that it is
accounted for in the RFC.
For the reasons detailed herein, the Court VACATES the ALJ’s decision denying Ms.
Hardesty benefits and REMANDS this matter for further proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) (sentence four). Final judgment will issue accordingly.
Electronic Distribution via CM/ECF:
Adam M. Dulik
Kathryn E. Olivier
UNITED STATES ATTORNEY’S OFFICE
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