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Moore v. Colvin

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

June 12, 2013

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


DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Angela Kathleen Moore (Moore) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for supplemental security income (SSI). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). 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

Moore was born on June 23, 1967 and suffers primarily from mental impairments (including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder) and also chronic low back pain. (R. 36, 187). Moore has been regularly treated for her mental impairments. Moore is on numerous psychotropic medications and has been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment on three occasions for suicide attempts and suicidal ideation. Moore also has an "extensive" history of both alcohol and prescription pain medication abuse. (R. 312, 334, 475, 907, 913).

The record reveals that Moore had a troubled childhood. She is a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her father and other family members, resulting in her father's imprisonment. (R. 428, 791). Moore was physically abused by her brother, mother, and father and also witnessed her father beat her mother, stepmother, and siblings. (R. 428, 674). Moore's mother, father and stepmother were alcoholics. (R. 426, 900, 901). Moore's mother also suffered from depression and attempted suicide by overdosing when Moore was about 10 years old. (R. 674, 708, 901, 949).

Moore's difficulties persisted into adulthood. When Moore was 26 years old, her first husband committed suicide by shooting himself with a shot gun. (R. 397, 674, 900). Moore's younger sister was murdered in approximately November 2004. (R. 397, 760, 786). Moore's second husband suffered an eye injury at work in March of 2005 and has not worked since then. (R. 673, 786, 841). Between April 2007 and November 2007, Moore was hospitalized three times for suicide attempts or suicidal ideation. (584, 760-61, 786). Moore's brother was murdered on February 16, 2010. (R. 954).

At the administrative hearing on March 10, 2010, Moore testified that her bipolar disorder makes her "an extremely grouchy person" who "want[s] to take things out on others." (R. 54-55). Moore also suffers flashbacks regarding the childhood sexual abuse she experienced. (R. 81, 899). Despite improvement on medication, Moore still has thoughts of suicide. (R. 55-56, 75, 903). Moore's second husband, Carl Johnson, testified that Moore sleeps most of the day, is unable to do housework, and "just can't function." (R. 87-88, 89-90). Johnson indicated that Moore gets "panicky" and "paranoid" when they are out in public. (R. 88, 91). Johnson locks up Moore's medications and dispenses them to her on a weekly basis. (R. 88-89). Despite Moore's severe mental impairments, no mental health medical expert testified at the administrative hearing. (R. 95).

Moore completed the eleventh grade and obtained a GED. (R. 38, 295, 842). Moore also took two years worth of classes at a community college but never received her culinary arts degree. Id . Moore has past work experience as a cleaner, order picker filing orders, and salad preparer at a restaurant (R. 40-41). Moore has a driver's license but testified that she does not drive because of all the medications she is taking. (R. 39). Moore applied for SSI on August 4, 2008, alleging she became totally disabled on July 22, 2008 because of degenerative disc disease, a bulging disc, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. (R. 187, 217). Moore's application was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels. (R. 111-17, 121-24, 253).

Under the required five-step analysis used to evaluate disability, ALJ Sylke Merchan found that Moore had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of July 22, 2008 (step one); her degenerative disc disease, depression, bipolar syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and asthma are severe impairments (step two); but that they did not qualify as a listed impairment (step three). (R. 12-14). The ALJ determined that Moore retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work except no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; can perform all other postural functioning on an occasional basis; avoid concentrated exposure to environmental irritants; can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; can have occasional contact with supervisors, the public, and coworkers; and can work in an environment with relaxed/flexible (low stress) production requirements and few, if any, workplace changes. (R. 14). Given this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Moore was unable to perform her past relevant work as a salad preparer, order picker, and janitor (step four). (R. 20). The ALJ found there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy that Moore could perform considering her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, including hand packer, hand sorter, and cleaner (step five). (R. 20-21). The Appeals Council denied Moore's request for review on June 14, 2011. (R. 1-6). Moore 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).

The ALJ denied Moore's claim at step five, finding that Moore retains the RFC to perform a range of light work. Moore challenges two main aspects of the ALJ's decision: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating her mental limitations at step three and (2) the ALJ erred in assessing Moore's residual functional capacity by failing to consider all of her impairments in combination and declining to accord controlling weight to the opinion of her treating psychiatrist. Because there is not substantial evidence in the record ...

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