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Mendenhall v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Springfield Division

August 9, 2016

SHERRI L. MENDENHALL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          SUE E. MYERSCOUGH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sherri L. Mendenhall has appealed from the Commissioner of Social Security’s decision denying her application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI supplemental security income. Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Affirmance are DENIED, and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion based upon the new Social Security Ruling (SSR) 16-3p, which replaced SSR 96-7p. SSR 16-3p eliminates “the use of the term ‘credibility’ from our sub-regulatory policy [to] clarify that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual's character.”

         I. Background

         On March 22, 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382 et seq. (the Act). The Act defines disability as the inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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.” Id. at § 1382(c). Plaintiff originally claimed that her disability began in May of 2005, but she amended her application to allege an onset date of February 15, 2010. (R. 42).

         Plaintiff’s claims were initially denied on July 9, 2012. (R. 78). Upon reconsideration, Plaintiff’s claims were again denied on December 24, 2012. (R. 86). On December 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (R. 94). On October 23, 2013, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) David W. Thompson held a video hearing on the matter. (R. 30). Plaintiff and an impartial vocational expert testified at the hearing. Id. On January 2, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act from February 15, 2010 through the date of the decision. (R. 23). Plaintiff appealed the ALJ’s decision and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on August 17, 2015. (D/e 12). The Commissioner of Social Security filed a Motion for Summary Affirmance on December 2, 2015. (D/e 15).

         On March 28, 2016, the Social Security Administration (SSA) issued a new Social Security Ruling interpreting the Administration’s policy concerning determinations of disability. The new ruling, SSR 16-3p, eliminates the use of the term “credibility, ” clarifying “that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual's character.” Although the effective date of the new ruling post-dates the ALJ’s decision in this matter, the new rule must be applied retroactively requiring remand in this case.

         II. Duty of the ALJ

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled under the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a standard five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). At the second of these five steps, the ALJ uses a two-step sub-analysis when evaluating a claimant’s symptoms. SSR 16-3p; see also 81 FR 14166 (“we use a two-step process for evaluating an individual's symptoms”). At the first step of the sub-analysis, which has not changed, the ALJ determines “whether the individual has a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's alleged symptoms.” SSR 16-3p. SSR 16-3p defines “symptoms” as Plaintiff’s “own description or statement of [] her physical or mental impairment(s).” See also 20 CFR §§ 404.1529 (guidelines for symptom evaluation), 416.929 (same).

         ALJ Thompson applied the now-superseded SSR 96-7p. After the ALJ found the medically determinable impairment that produced Plaintiff’s alleged symptoms at the first step, the ALJ moved on to the second step. “The adjudicator must [then] evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the individual’s symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms limit the individual's ability to do basic work activities.” SSR 96-7p. To do this, “the adjudicator must make a finding on the credibility of the individual’s statements based on a consideration of the entire case record.” Id. However, when the SSA instituted SSR 16-3p, the SSA clarified “that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual’s character.” SSR 16-3p.

         To support the ALJ’s findings based on the five-step process set out at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 as well as the new two-step sub-analysis in SSR 16-3p, the ALJ must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusion.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 941 (7th Cir. 2002). The ALJ’s must also “articulate his reasons and make a bridge between the evidence and the outcome as to his step five determination.” Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 371 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ must adequately articulate his findings so that this Court can trace his reasoning and be sure that he took into account all the important evidence. Rohan v. Chater, 98 F.3d 966, 971 (7th Cir. 1996). Moreover, “an ALJ cannot rely only on the evidence that supports [his] opinion. And while an ALJ need not mention every piece of evidence in [his] opinion, [he] cannot ignore a line of evidence that suggests a disability.” Bates v. Colvin, 736 F.3d 1093, 1099 (7th Cir. 2013) (internal citations omitted).

         III. Standard of Review

         If the Appeals Council declines to review the decision of an ALJ, the ALJ’s decision becomes final. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. However, a claimant may appeal the decision in the United States District Court for the claimant’s home district. Id. On appeal, if the District Court finds that the Commissioner’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, those findings are conclusive. Id. 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).

         The Court, when deciding whether the Commissioner’s decision was supported by substantial evidence, “must not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] own judgment.” Clark v. Sullivan, 891 F.2d 175, 177 (7th Cir. 1989). However, if the Court finds that “the ALJ's decision ‘lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.’” Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 486 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002)). Nevertheless, even if “reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, ” the Court must uphold the ALJ’s decision so ...


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