HANKINS v. SAUL
ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION - Plaintiff, Jonathan H., seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's decision denying his petition for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. For the reasons discussed above, the Court REVERSES and REMANDS the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. Final judgment will issue by separate entry (SEE ENTRY FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION). Signed by Judge James Patrick Hanlon on 3/31/2021.(DWH)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
JONATHAN H. 1,
ANDREW M. SAUL Commissioner of
ENTRY REVIEWING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION
Plaintiff, Jonathan H., seeks judicial review of the Social Security
Administration's decision denying his petition for Disability Insurance Benefits
and Supplemental Security Income. Because the ALJ failed to adequately
analyze whether Plaintiff met one of the Listing impairments, the decision is
REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.
Facts and Background
Plaintiff was 30 years old at the alleged onset date of his disability. Dkt.
6-2 at 23 (R. 23). He has a high school education and has held various jobs,
such as a direct care worker and a personal training manager. Id. at 22–23 (R.
22–23). In early 2013, he was working as a motor vehicle assembler when a
To protect the privacy interests of claimants for Social Security benefits, consistent with the
recommendation of the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the
Administrative Office of the United States courts, the Southern District of Indiana has opted to
use only the first name and last initial of non-governmental parties in its Social Security
judicial review opinions.
car door fell on his leg, injuring his lower back and left hip. Dkt. 6-3 at 141 (R.
294); dkt. 6-9 at 78 (R. 864); dkt. 6-13 at 138 (R. 1434). 2
Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental
Security Income in November 2016 with an alleged onset date in February
2013. Dkt. 6-2 at 62 (R. 62). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on
reconsideration. Id. at 15 (R. 15). Administrative Law Judge Latanya White
Richards held a hearing and, on January 29, 2019, issued a decision denying
Plaintiff's claims. Id. at 15–24 (R. 15–24). In February 2020, Plaintiff brought
this action asking the Court to review the denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). Dkt. 1.
In her decision, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation in 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Dkt. 6-2
at 15–24 (R. 15–24). Specifically, the ALJ found that:
At step one, Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity 3
since the alleged onset date. Id. at 18 (R. 18).
At step two, he had "the following severe impairments: obesity; spine
disorder; [and] left hip disorder." Id. at 18–19 (R. 18–19).
At step three, he did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the
listed impairments. Id. at 19 (R. 19).
After step three but before step four, he had the residual functional
capacity ("RFC") "to perform sedentary work . . . except [Plaintiff] can
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.
3 Substantial gainful activity is defined as work activity that is both substantial (involving
significant physical or mental activities) and gainful (usually done for pay or profit, whether or
not a profit is realized). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a).
occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes[,] or
scaffolds." Id. at 20–22 (R. 20–22). Plaintiff can also "occasionally stoop,
kneel, crawl[,] and crouch," but must "avoid exposure to unprotected
heights and hazardous machinery" and "balancing on narrow, slippery[,]
or moving surfaces." Id. Additionally, Plaintiff requires "the option to
alternate positions between sitting and standing every 15 minutes" and
"requires a cane for ambulation." Id.
At step four, Plaintiff "is unable to perform any past relevant work." Id.
at 22–23 (R. 22–23).
At step five, considering Plaintiff's "age, education, work experience, and
[RFC], there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy" that he can perform. Id. at 23–24 (R. 23–24).
"The Social Security Act authorizes payment of disability insurance
benefits . . . to individuals with disabilities." Barnhart v. Walton, 535 U.S. 212,
214 (2002). "The statutory definition of 'disability' has two parts." Id. at 217.
First, it requires an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity. Id.
And second, it requires a physical or mental impairment that explains the
inability and "has lasted or can be expected to last . . . not less than 12
months." Id. "The standard for disability claims under the Social Security Act
is stringent." Williams-Overstreet v. Astrue, 364 F. App'x 271, 274 (7th Cir.
2010). "Even claimants with substantial impairments are not necessarily
entitled to benefits, which are paid for by taxes, including taxes paid by those
who work despite serious physical or mental impairments and for whom
working is difficult and painful." Id. at 274.
When an applicant seeks judicial review, the Court's role is limited to
ensuring that the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668
(7th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. In
evaluating the evidence, the Court gives the ALJ's credibility determinations
"considerable deference," overturning them only if they are "patently wrong."
Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006).
The ALJ must apply the five-step inquiry set forth in 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)–(v), evaluating 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). "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. § 404.1520(e), (g). The burden of proof is on the claimant
for steps one through four but shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See
Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.
If the ALJ committed no legal error and substantial evidence supports
the ALJ's decision, the Court must affirm the benefit denial. Barnett, 381 F.3d
at 668. When an ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, a
remand for further proceedings is typically appropriate. 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).
Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred at step three by not adequately
analyzing whether his hip and leg impairments and difficulties with walking
met or medically equaled the severity of Listing 1.02(A) (Major Dysfunction of a
Joint). Dkt. 8 at 3. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's findings were
supported by substantial evidence. Dkt. 11 at 7.
A. Plaintiff's Burden of Proof
At step three, a claimant has the burden to present medical findings that
either meet an impairment described in the Social Security Administration
("SSA") Listing of Impairments or are equal in severity to the symptoms
described in a Listing. See Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015)
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525, 404.1526).
To be considered presumptively disabled under Listing 1.02(A), a
claimant must show that a major peripheral weight-bearing joint (i.e., hip,
knee, or ankle) exhibits "a gross anatomical deformity," along with "joint pain,"
"stiffness," and "limitation of motion," which results in an "inability to ambulate
effectively." 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 1.02(A). The parties dispute
only whether the ALJ sufficiently analyzed Plaintiff's ability to "ambulate
effectively." Dkt. 8 at 29–31; dkt. 11 at 9–10.
One can ambulate effectively if they are "capable of sustaining a
reasonable walking pace over a sufficient distance to be able to carry out
activities of daily living." 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 1.00(B)(2)(b)(2).
They must also "have the ability to travel without companion assistance to and
from . . . employment." Id. Examples of ineffective ambulation include, but are
not limited to:
the inability to walk without the use of a walker, two
crutches or two canes, the inability to walk a block at a
reasonable pace on rough or uneven surfaces, the
inability to use standard public transportation, the
inability to carry out routine ambulatory activities, such
as shopping and banking, and the inability to climb a
few steps at a reasonable pace with the use of a single
At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff complained of ambulatory
limitations. Dkt. 6-2 at 32 (R. 32). He noted that, "If I'm up walking, that's
when the hip really starts to hurt. The thigh—the nerve damage, it's constant
and never ending, and of course it gets worse as I am moving . . . ." Id. at 48–
49 (R. 48–49). Plaintiff also mentioned that he was unsure how much time he
could spend walking. Id. at 54 (R. 54). Finally, he noted that his "son plays
football and I haven’t seen a game, because I can't climb the stairs to the
bleachers." Id. at 53 (R. 53).
Medical documents also show Plaintiff's pain, stiffness, and limitation of
motion in his hip joint. E.g., dkt. 6-4 at 40 (R. 337) (medical records showing
"chronic left hip pain"); dkt. 6-5 at 31 (R. 431) (physical therapist's evaluation
of decreased range of motion). His physical therapist noted his abnormal gait
and walking limitations. Dkt. 6-5 at 4 (R. 404). He also reported that he needs
to stop and rest after only thirty feet of walking. Dkt. 6-3 at 99 (R. 252).
Plaintiff has thus presented evidence showing limitations on his walking
pace and its effects on his daily activities.
B. ALJ's Duty to Minimally Articulate
Once the claimant has met his burden to present medical findings, the
ALJ must determine if the claimant "meets . . . a listed impairment," 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(d), and, if not, must "compare [a claimant's] findings with . . .
closely analogous listed impairments" to determine whether the claimant's
"impairment(s) are at least of equal medical significance to those of a listed
impairment." Id. § 404.1526(b)(2); Deloney v. Saul, No. 20-1418, 2020 WL
7260656, at *2 (7th Cir. Dec. 10, 2020) (discussing the ALJ's duty to determine
whether a claimant equals a listing).
This analysis requires an ALJ to "discuss the listing by name and offer
more than a perfunctory analysis of the listing." Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d
664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). Additionally, with respect to Listing 1.02(A), an ALJ
must consider examples of ineffective ambulation, such as whether the
claimant can "climb a few steps at a reasonable pace with the use of a single
hand rail." Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 562–63 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting 20
C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 1.00(B)(2)(b)(2)).
While the ALJ is not held to a high bar of articulation at step three, some
level of analysis is required. See Minnick, 775 F.3d at 935–36. When the ALJ
"provides nothing more than a superficial analysis, reversal and remand is
required." Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 370 (7th Cir. 2004); Brindisi ex rel.
Brindisi v. Barnhart, 315 F.3d 783, 786–87 (7th Cir. 2003). For example, the
Seventh Circuit has held that a two-sentence rationale that "provided no
analysis whatsoever" was "inadequate" and thus reversible error. Minnick, 775
F.3d at 936; cf. Zatz v. Astrue, 346 F. App'x 107, 110 (7th Cir. 2009) (noting
that, when an ALJ conducts a perfunctory analysis, "there is little basis for
meaningful judicial review").
Here, the ALJ found that the claimant suffers from the "severe
impairments" of "obesity; spine disorder; [and] left hip disorder" at step two.
However, at step three, the ALJ explained:
Although the claimant has the severe impairments
listed above, the impairments, or combination of
impairments, do not meet or medically equal the
specific criteria for any impairment listed in Appendix
1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. The medical opinion
of the State agency consultative physicians, all of whom
considered the relevant Listings, support this finding.
Dkt. 6-2 at 19 (R. 19) (citations omitted).
Plaintiff contends that this analysis was "inadequate" and "perfunctory"
and therefore requires reversal. Dkt. 8 at 28–32, 36. The Commissioner
argues that the ALJ did not commit reversible error because: (1) SSR 17-2p
authorized the ALJ's brief analysis; (2) the opinions of state-agency reviewing
physicians constitute substantial evidence on the Listing equivalence
determination; and (3) other parts of the decision support the step three
finding. Dkt. 11 at 7–9.
1. SSR 17-2p
First, the Commissioner points to an SSA ruling instructing that,
"[g]enerally, a statement that the individual's impairment(s) does not medically
equal a listed impairment constitutes sufficient articulation." Id. at 7–8 (citing
SSR 17-2p, at *4). However, the regulations also state that the ALJ "must
consider all evidence in making a finding that an individual's impairment(s)
do not medically equal a listing." SSR 17-2p, at *4.
SSR 17-2p only sets out general articulation standards and does not
contradict Seventh Circuit precedent requiring that, to determine whether "a
claimant's condition meets or equals a listed impairment, an ALJ must discuss
the listing by name and offer more than perfunctory analysis of the listing."
Minnick, 775 F.3d at 935 (quoting Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668). This requirement
enables a reviewing court to "trace [the] reasoning" of an ALJ and ensure that
"an ALJ considered the important evidence." Brindisi ex rel. Brindisi, 315 F.3d
at 787. Without the context of the applicable Listing and the evidence used to
determine whether a claimant met or medically equaled it, it is difficult for a
reviewing court to determine whether an ALJ has "provide[d] a 'logical bridge'
between the evidence and [her] conclusions." Varga v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 809,
813 (7th Cir. 2015).
2. Reliance on State-Agency Reviewing Physicians
Second, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ may solely rely on
opinions of state-agency reviewing physicians in the Listing analysis. Dkt. 11
at 8. In Scheck v. Barnhart, the Seventh Circuit held that "[t]he ALJ may
properly rely upon the opinion of . . . medical experts" as substantial evidence
that no listing was met or equaled. 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing
Scott v. Sullivan, 898 F.3d 519, 524 (7th Cir. 1990); Farrell v. Sullivan, 878 F.2d
985, 990 (7th Cir. 1989)). The ALJ in Scheck could thus acceptably provide a
"terse statement," relying solely on the state-agency physicians' reports. Id.
However, in Scheck, there was "no evidence which would support the
position that Scheck met or equaled the listing." Id. at 701 (emphasis in
original). That is not the case here; there is evidence that Plaintiff met or
equaled Listing 1.02(A). See Hartley v. Berryhill, No. 1:17-cv-01043, 2018 WL
2173682, at *4 (S.D. Ind. May 10, 2018) (holding that Scheck is distinguishable
when "the evidence presents a colorable claim that [a] Listing . . . is met"). As
mentioned above, the records reflect that Plaintiff had an anatomical deformity,
dkt. 6-7 at 101 (R. 659), which resulted in pain, e.g., dkt. 6-2 at 46 (R. 46),
stiffness, e.g., dkt. 6-5 at 25 (R. 425), and limited motion, e.g., dkt. 6-7 at 46
(R. 604). Plaintiff also discussed his ambulatory limitations during the
administrative hearing, including his inability to climb stairs. Dkt. 6-2 at 48–
49, 53, 54 (R. 48–49, 53, 54).
Nevertheless, the ALJ relied on the state-agency physicians' findings
without addressing or explaining why she disagreed with Plaintiff's evidence of
meeting or equaling Listing 1.02(A). Instead, she said only that "[t]he medical
opinion of the State agency consultative physicians, all of whom considered the
relevant Listings, support this finding." Dkt. 6-2 at 19 (R. 19).
When a Plaintiff has presented contradictory evidence to the findings of
state-agency physicians, the ALJ must explain her rationale for favoring the
state-agency physicians' findings over the claimant's evidence. Ribaudo v.
Barnhart, 458 F.3d 580, 584 (7th Cir. 2006) (finding that the ALJ's failure to
"evaluate any of the evidence that potentially supported [the plaintiff's] claim
does not provide much assurance that he adequately considered [the plaintiff's]
case"). Since Plaintiff presented medical and testimonial evidence of meeting or
equaling Listing 1.02(A), the ALJ needed to provide analysis on how and why
she agreed with the state-agency physicians over the Plaintiff's evidence and
testimony. See id.
3. Reading the Decision as a Whole
Finally, the Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision, read as a
whole, sufficiently justifies the determination. Dkt. 11 at 8–9. Since the fivestep evaluation process "comprises sequential determinations that can involve
overlapping reasoning," Jeske v. Saul, 955 F.3d 583, 590 (7th Cir. 2020), "it is
proper to read the ALJ's decision as a whole," Rice, 384 F.3d at 370 n.5.
But the rest of the ALJ's decision does not justify the Listing
determination. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ addressed specific
evidence of Plaintiff's symptoms in the next step, which examines Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity, but does not mention any specific evaluation of
the evidence. Dkt. 11 at 8–9. The only evidence the ALJ mentions is that "[t]he
claimant requires a cane for ambulation." Dkt. 6-2 at 34 (R. 34). That is not
enough to meet the ALJ's step-three burden because it does not satisfactorily
address the relevant standard of Listing 1.02(A). In order for the ALJ to
"minimally articulate" her justification, Scheck, 357 F.3d at 700, she must
adequately evaluate whether the claimant can "sustain a reasonable walking
pace over a sufficient distance," 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1,
§ 1.00(B)(2)(b)(2), and consider the examples of ineffective ambulation, Moss,
555 F.3d at 562. Here, she did not do so.
Because the ALJ's decision "omits reference to the applicable listing and
provides nothing more than a superficial analysis, reversal and remand is
required." Rice, 384 F.3d at 369–70. 4 The Court's remand should not be
interpreted as expressing any views as to whether Plaintiff's conditions meet or
medically equal a listed impairment. Instead, the remand serves only as an
Plaintiff also contends that the decision did not properly address the impact of his obesity on
his employment prospects and inappropriately assessed his testimony about his symptoms.
Dkt. 8 at 2–3. Because Plaintiff's Listing argument warrants remand, this order does not
address these other arguments.
instruction to provide appropriate analysis to show that proper considerations
were made in resolving these issues.
For the reasons discussed above, the Court REVERSES and REMANDS
the ALJ's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. Final judgment will issue by
Alison T. Schwartz
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
Julian Clifford Wierenga
UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE (Indianapolis)
Kirsten Elaine Wold
HANKEY LAW OFFICE
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