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Gillim v. Colvin

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

May 7, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Tara Lee Gillim (Gillim) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Because the administrative law judge's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, the denial of benefits is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background

Gilliam, age 41 at the time of her hearing before the administrative law judge (ALJ), suffers from a number of medical problems, including Meniere's disease, sensorineural hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo, panic attacks, confusion, depression, anxiety, hypertension, bulging discs, obesity, Chiari malformation and frequent headaches. Meniere's disease is a "disorder of the inner ear that causes severe dizziness (vertigo), ringing in the ears (tinnitus), hearing loss, and a feeling of fullness or congestion in the ear." National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Chiari malformation is a structural defect in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke,

Gillim completed high school and has experience as a police dispatcher. (R. 31, 50). Gillim applied for DIB on June 2, 2008, alleging she became totally disabled on December 1, 2007 because of Meniere's disease, fluctuating sensorineural hearing loss, tinnitus, aural fullness, vertigo, panic attacks, confusion, difficulty concentrating, depression, difficulty with balance, hyperacusis, Chiari malformation and frequent headaches. (R. 104, 135). Gillim's application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels. (R. 56-60, 62-65). At the time of the March 18, 2010 hearing, Gillim lived in Vermont. (R. 33). Gillim testified that she suffers one or two vertigo/dizziness episodes a week from her Meniere's disease which cause her to be debilitated for several hours each. (R. 37).

Under the required five-step analysis used to evaluate disability, ALJ Janice M. Bruning found that Gillim had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of December 1, 2007 (step one); her Meniere's disease and Chiari malformation were severe impairments (step two); but that they did not qualify as a listed impairment (step three). (R. 16, 17). The ALJ determined that Gillim retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work except no work around heights or moving machinery, only occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, and stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, or crawling, no contact with the general public, occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors, and no environments with background noise. (R. 17). Given this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Gillim was unable to perform her past relevant work as a police dispatcher (step four). (R. 22). The ALJ found there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy that Gillim could perform considering her age, education, and residual functional capacity, including order clerk or information clerk (step five). (R. 22-23). The Appeals Council denied Gillim's request for review on August 22, 2011. (R. 1-4). Gillim now seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner, which is the ALJ's ruling. O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue , 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010).

II. Discussion

Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if he has an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ conducts a five-step sequential inquiry: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals any of the listings found in the regulations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (2004); (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his former occupation; and (5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any other available work in light of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (2004); Clifford v. Apfel , 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). "An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled." Clifford , 227 F.3d at 868 (quoting Zalewski v. Heckler , 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985)).

Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, based upon a legal error, or too poorly articulated to permit meaningful review. Hopgood ex rel. v. L.G. v. Astrue , 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). In its substantial evidence review, the court critically reviews the entire administrative record but does not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Clifford , 227 F.3d at 869. An ALJ's credibility determination is generally entitled to deference and will not be overturned unless it is patently wrong. Schaaf v. Astrue , 602 F.3d 869, 875 (7th Cir. 2010).

In this case, the ALJ denied Gillim's claim at step five, finding that Gillim retains the RFC to perform a range of sedentary work. Gillim challenges four main aspects of the ALJ's decision:

(1) the ALJ erred in evaluating her mental limitations at steps two and three; (2) the ALJ erred in assessing Gillim's residual functional capacity; (3) the ALJ's adverse credibility determination is patently wrong; and (4) the ALJ erred at step five by failing to account for all of Gillim's limitations in the hypothetical given to the vocational expert (VE). Because the ALJ did not adequately consider Gillim's mental limitations, the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and a remand is required

A. Mental Limitations

1. Special Technique

Gillim first argues that the ALJ failed to follow the special technique procedure for evaluating her mental limitations. The special technique is "used to analyze whether a claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment and whether that impairment causes functional limitations." Craft v. Astrue , 539 F.3d 668, 674 (7th Cir. 2008). The special technique applies at steps two and three of the five-step analysis. Id . Under the special technique, the ALJ evaluates the claimant's "pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings" to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment. Id . If the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment, the ALJ must document that finding and rate the degree of functional ...

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