United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
May 4, 2004.
PATRICIA YONTS, Plaintiff,
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.
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 both in terms of mathematical calculations,
and in terms of what the Social Security rules and regulations instruct.
Ms. Yonts first challenges the ALJ's finding that she earned more than
$500 in December 1994. With her motion for summary judgment she included
a chart summarizing her earnings, and, according to that chart, she
earned only $418.04 in that month. See Plaintiff's Memorandum in
Support of Her Motion for Summary Judgment, Exhibit A. The Commissioner,
having raised no challenge or objection to the chart, appears to agree with the figures
and information provided therein. That Ms. Yonts earned less than $500 in
December is of little consequence, however, because her chart shows that
the ALJ actually erred in her favor with regard to the month of June
1994. Thus, although the ALJ may have gotten the particulars wrong, she
was correct in concluding that Ms. Yonts earned more than $500 in five
months in 1994.
The real issue in this case is not whether the ALJ's calculations of
monthly earnings were correct, but whether the ALJ was right to look at
the individual months in the first place. On this score, Ms. Yonts argues
that the ALJ improperly failed to average her earnings across the actual
period of time she worked, opting instead to look at each individual
month in the period. Ms. Yonts argues that, if the ALJ had looked at an
average of her monthly earnings, as provided in the regulations, she
could not have concluded that Ms. Yonts performed substantial gainful
The Social Security Act provides for a "child's insurance benefit" to
[e]very child . . . of an individual who dies a
fully or currently insured individual, if such
(A) has filed an application for child's insurance
(B) at the time such application was filed was
unmarried and . . . is under a disability (as
defined in section 423(d) of this title) which
began before he attained the age of 22, and (C) was dependent upon such individual . . . at
the time of [her] death. . . .
42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1). The ALJ appears to have assumed that Ms. Yonts
satisfied the criteria set forth in subparagraphs (A) and (C) above; she
also seems to have assumed that Ms. Yonts' mother was fully or currently
insured at the time of her death. And neither the Commissioner nor Ms.
Yonts challenges these assumptions. This appeal challenges only the ALJ's
decision to deny benefits based upon Ms. Yonts' work at Service
Merchandise, and the underlying determination that such work constituted
"substantial gainful activity" that prevented her from satisfying the
disability criteria in subparagraph (B) above.
For purposes of determining whether a claimant seeking survivor
benefits is disabled, the regulations teach that a claimant's earnings
play a significant role in the analysis: the regulations provide that,
during the relevant time period, monthly earnings averaging more than
$500 will ordinarily show that the claimant has engaged in substantial
gainful activity (this is the "SGA threshold"); conversely, monthly
earnings averaging less than $300 will ordinarily show that the claimant
has not engaged in substantial gainful activity (this is the non-SGA
threshold). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574(a)(1), (b)(2)-(3) (West 2004). For
average monthly earnings that fall between the two thresholds, the
regulations instruct the Commissioner to consider other information,
beyond just the amount of the earnings, including whether the work being done is comparable, in terms of the
amount of time, energy, skill and responsibility involved, to work being
done by unimpaired people in the community. Id. § 404.1574(b)(6)(iii).
The regulations further provide that, "[i]f your work as an employee . .
. was continuous without significant change in work patterns or
earnings, and there has been no change in the substantial gainful
activity earnings levels," the substantial gainful activity question is
determined by "averag[ing] your earnings over the entire period of work
requiring evaluation. . . ." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574a(a) (West 2004).
As explained, the ALJ determined that Ms. Yonts had engaged in
substantial gainful activity exclusively because she earned more than
$500 in several months in 1994. There is no indication that the ALJ ever
calculated or considered average monthly earnings for the period of
employment. This was improper under the regulations.
In response to Ms. Yonts' challenges, the Commissioner argues that the
ALJ actually determined that Ms. Yonts' average monthly earnings fell
somewhere between the SGA and non-SGA thresholds, and that the ALJ then
went on to consider the other factors articulated in §
404.1574(b)(6)(iii), ultimately concluding that Ms. Yonts performed work
comparable to that of an unimpaired telephone receptionist. See
Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Commissioner's Motion for Summary
Judgment, pp. 13-14. If that were truly the case, the Court would likely affirm the ALJ's
decision. The problem is that the ALJ's decision gives no indication that
she applied the regulations in this manner, that she ever calculated
average monthly earnings, or that she ever considered the other factors
specified in § 404.1574(b)(6)(iii). Based on the record before it, the
Court finds that the ALJ's focus on individual months, her failure to
average monthly earnings across the entire period of work, was
inconsistent with the SSA's regulations, and the case must be remanded.
Ms. Yonts argues that, because she is in such dire straights, teetering
on the brink of losing her home, the Court should reverse and award
benefits without remanding the case. Although the Court is sympathetic to
Ms. Yonts' plight, it declines to grant Ms. Yonts' request. An award of
benefits without remand is appropriate "`when no useful purpose would be
served by further administrative proceedings, or when the record has been
fully developed and there is not sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's
conclusion.'" Criner v. Barnhart, 208 F. Supp.2d 937, 958 (N.D. Ill.
2002) (quoting Holden v. Shalala, 846 F. Supp. 662, 669-70 (N.D. Ill.
1994)). That is not the case here.
The parties agree that Ms. Yonts' average monthly earnings, not
including vacation pay, were around $460.00 during the year 1994.
See Commissioner's Brief, p. 3; Ms. Yonts' Brief, p. 6 and Exhibit A. In other words, if averaged, Ms. Yonts' earnings fall between
the $500 SGA threshold set forth in § 404.1574(b)(2) and the $300 non-SGA
threshold set forth in § 404.1574(b)(3). But that alone, does not dictate
that Ms. Yonts is entitled to benefits. Rather, the fact that her average
earnings fall between the SGA and non-SGA thresholds means that factors
besides earnings must be considered/Here, the ALJ looked at Ms. Yonts'
earnings and stopped. Because she never considered the factors enumerated
in § 404.1574(b)(6) (iii), the record is largely silent on whether, for
example, Ms. Yonts' job at Service Merchandise was comparable to work
being done by unimpaired people in the community.
Nor was the issue of Ms. Yonts' impairment ever fully developed in the
record; indeed, because the ALJ focused the hearing exclusively on
earnings, the record contains no medical records and only a few brief
mentions of Ms. Yonts' bipolar affective disorder. These issues, and any
other issues necessary to resolve the question of whether Ms. Yonts was
disabled within the meaning of § 402(d)(1)(B), and whether she otherwise
satisfies the criteria of § 402(d), must be addressed on remand. On the
record before it, the Court is unable to say whether or not Ms. Yonts is
entitled to child's insurance benefits.
Depending on how the Commissioner decides the substantial gainful
activity and disability questions on remand, she may or may not be required to reach the question of what impact, if any, Ms.
Yonts' marriage may have had on her eligibility to receive benefits. To
the extent it becomes an issue, however, the Court, notes simply that the
Act and regulations do not appear to dictate that marriage forever
destroys a claimant's eligibility to receive benefits under § 402(d); on
the contrary, the language of § 402(d)(1)(B) would seem to suggest that
the relevant inquiry is whether the applicant was married at the time she
filed her application, not whether she had ever married at any time in
For the reasons set forth above, the Court grants Ms. Yonts' motion for
summary judgment and denies the Commissioner's motion. The case is
remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Given Ms,
Yonts' dire situation, as recognized by the ALJ, the Commissioner is
urged to handle the remand of this matter as expeditiously as possible.