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YONTS v. BARNHART

May 4, 2004.

PATRICIA YONTS, Plaintiff,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ARLANDER KEYS, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On December 11, 2000, after her mother died, Patricia Yonts applied for survivor's benefits as a disabled adult child; she was almost 43 years old when she filed the application. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her application initially on December 19, 2000, because it found that she had engaged in substantial gainful activity after attaining the age of 22. Record at 14-15. That decision was affirmed on reconsideration on January 17, 2001. Record at 18-19. Ms. Yonts then requested a hearing, and the case was assigned to Administrative Law Judge Maren Dougherty, who heard the matter on December 7, 2001.

At the hearing before the ALJ, Ms. Yonts, who was represented by counsel, testified that she suffers from a bipolar affective disorder. She testified that she had received Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") because of that disorder; she began receiving SSI in 1993 and continued to receive it at least through the date of the hearing.*fn1 Record at 155-56.

  With respect to her work history, Ms. Yonts testified that she vaguely recalled working when she was younger for a week or two, but that she had not otherwise worked until October of 1993, when she secured a job at Service Merchandise because her "psychiatrist thought it might be good therapy for [her] to try to get out into the world around people." Record at 156. She testified that Service Merchandise initially hired her as a seasonal employee, and she spent the first two months on the job working at the jewelry counter, helping out during the busy holiday season. Id. at 161-62. She testified that, after the holidays, the store kept her on because "they liked me"; she was then given the task of answering phones and transferring calls to the appropriate department within the store, and, in that job, she sat in an upstairs room, away from the shopping public. Id. at 161, 163-64,

  Ms. Yonts testified that, because of her bipolar disorder, she had trouble handling her job at Service Merchandise; she testified that, each day she worked, she felt "sick to my stomach, shaking, overwhelming feeling that I needed to be home." Record at 157. Ms. Yonts testified that she finally left her job in mid-1995; she took a medical leave of absence and never went back. Id. at 158.

  In addition to her work history, Ms. Yonts testified briefly about her personal life. She testified that she was married briefly when she was 18 years old, but that, despite her marriage, she continued to live with her mother. Record at 159. She testified that she married Charles Yonts on October 25, 1975, and that they separated a couple of months later, after she learned that he was actually still married to another woman; she testified that their divorce was final in 1977 or 1978. Record at 159-60.

  In addition to Ms. Yonts' testimony and the arguments of counsel, the ALJ considered documentary evidence submitted before and during the hearing. That evidence includes divorce records, confirming both that Charles Yonts' marriage to Pearlie Yonts, which began on December 18, 1971, was officially ended on March 23, 1976, and that Charles Yonts' marriage to Patricia Yonts, the claimant, began on October 25, 1975 and officially ended on September 14, 1979. See Record at 138-40. And it also includes payroll records, both pay statements from Service Merchandise and a summary of Ms. Yonts' "FICA Earnings" covering the years from 1974 to 1995. Id. at 63-135, 43. According to the latter summary, Ms. Yonts earned $320 in 1974, then earned nothing further until 1993. Id. at 43. She earned $484.50 in 1993, $6,124.41 in 1994, and $1,603.21 in 1995. Id.

  The record also contains two letters. The first is a letter from Ms. Yonts dated May 29, 2001; in it, Ms. Yonts explains that she had always lived with her mother and depended on her mother's income to survive, and that she was trying to hold things together since her mother's death, for her own sake and for the sake of her two daughters, ages 3 and 12. Record at 29. She also begged to have her case heard and resolved quickly, before she "loses everything." Id. The second letter, written November 21, 2001, is from Ms. Yonts' attorney to the ALJ; it explains that a portion of Ms. Yonts' 1994 "earnings" ($233.68) constituted vacation pay, which, according to the attorney, should not have been included in the SSA's underlying substantial gainful activity analysis. Record at 59.

  The ALJ issued her decision on February 21, 2002, finding that Ms. Yonts was not entitled to benefits because she engaged in substantial gainful activity after reaching the age of 22. Record at 8-9. The crux of the ALJ's decision is as follows:

  A review of claimant's earnings record reveals that she earned $6124.41 in 1994 and $1603.21 in 1995. The claimant asserts that the figure for 1994 is inflated due to the inclusion of commissions earned in 1993 as well as $233.68 vacation pay for 1994 (Exhibits 4, 23). Nevertheless, by her own admission, the claimant earned over $500 in January, July, August, September, and December 1994. Moreover, this was true despite the receipt of vacation pay (Exhibit 21). Record at 8. In short, the ALJ denied Ms. Yonts' claim because she earned more than $500 in five months in 1994. Having made this finding concerning Ms. Yonts' work activities, the ALJ determined that she need not reach the question of how Ms. Yonts' brief (and apparently illegal) marriage might affect her eligibility for benefits. Id. at 8.

  The ALJ's decision became the final agency decision when the Appeals Council denied review on March 26, 2003. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Ms. Yonts then filed this lawsuit, seeking review of the decision to deny her benefits. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge, and the case was reassigned to this Court on September 9, 2003. Thereafter, both parties moved for summary judgment. Ms. Yonts asks the Court to reverse the Commissioner's denial of her claim for benefits, or, in the alternative, to remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. The Commissioner has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to affirm the ALJ's findings.

  Discussion

  An ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). Where, however, "the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Steele, 290 F.3d at 940. In the Seventh Circuit, an ALJ must "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusions so that [the Court] may afford the claimant meaningful review of the SSA's ultimate findings." Blakes ex rel. Wolfe v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir. 2003). It is not enough that the record contains evidence to support the ALJ's decision; if the ALJ does not rationally articulate the grounds for that decision, the Court must remand. Steele, 290 F.3d at 941.

  Here, the ALJ determined that Ms. Yonts "earned over $500 in January, July, August, September and December 1994," then concluded that "the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity subsequent to her attainment of the age of 22 and is therefore not entitled to childhood insurance benefits based on disability." Record at 8. Ms. Yonts asks the Court to reverse the decision below because the ALJ's findings about her earnings were simply wrong — ...


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