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Lee v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

January 18, 2017

TYRONE LEE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          HON. MARIA VALDEZ United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Tyrone Lee (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI (“SSI”) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 18] is granted and the matter is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


         I. Procedural History

         At age forty-six, Plaintiff filed his SSI application on June 27, 2011, alleging disability due to high blood pressure, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis with pain in hands and legs, and depression with an amended disability onset date of May 14, 2011. (R. 20, 24). His initial application was denied, and was again denied upon a January 3, 2012 reconsideration. (R. 20). Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which took place October 20, 2012. (Id.). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with his attorney and offered testimony. (Id.). A medical expert and a vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared and testified. (Id.).

         On January 24, 2013, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's applications for SSI benefits. (R. 20-29). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 14, 2014, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and therefore reviewable by the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (R. 5-7); also see Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005). (Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 332 (7th Cir. 1994).

         II. ALJ Decision

         On January 24, 2013, the ALJ issued a written determination finding that the Plaintiff has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since his May 14, 2011 amended onset date of disability, and denying Plaintiff's SSI application. (R. 20). The ALJ performed the proper five-step analysis, noting initially that the Plaintiff was born on March 12, 1965 and was 46 years old on the date the application was filed. (R. 28). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage in a Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since his alleged onset date of May 14, 2011. (R. 22). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: asthma; left-eye blindness; depression with psychotic features; history of poly-substance abuse; antisocial personality disorders; symptoms of arthritis; and a history of learning disability. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. (R. 23). Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work that is unskilled, routine, and was limited to simple two step tasks involving the ability to understand, remember, and carry out very short and simple instructions, albeit at less than the full range of light work. (Id.). The ALJ also found the Plaintiff was unable to work on uneven or slippery surfaces, work at heights, climb ladders, or frequently negotiate stairs; the Plaintiff should avoid commercial driving; and the Plaintiff was not suited for work that required extensive contact with the public, joint work with coworkers, or jobs that required complex instruction and comprehension or fine motor skills. (Id.). At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. 28). Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Id.). Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work as a laundry worker, or cleaner. (R. 29). As a result, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been disabled from March 14, 2011 through the date of the decision, under the Act. (Id.).


         The ALJ's decision must be upheld if it follows the administrative procedure for determining whether the Plaintiff is disabled as set forth in the Act, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a), if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if it is free of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Although we review the ALJ's decision deferentially, the ALJ must nevertheless build a “logical bridge” between the evidence and their conclusion. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014). A “minimal[ ] articulat[ion] of [their] justification” is enough. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th Cir. 2008).


         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ made four errors. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision to give greater weight to the opinion of a non-examining psychologist over the opinion of the Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist was not supported by substantial evidence. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment failed to account for the Plaintiff's well-supported limitations. Third, the Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to pose a hypothetical question to the vocational expert which included all of the Plaintiff's limitations rendering the ALJ's step five finding that the Plaintiff could perform other work, unsupported by substantial evidence. Lastly, the Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's credibility assessment was legally insufficient.

         Turning to Plaintiff's first argument; the Plaintiff initially argues that the ALJ erred when assessing the weight of the Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Medeia Gartel M.D. (“Dr. Gartel”), who administered a course of monthly treatments with the Plaintiff starting in August of 2011 through June of 2012, and who submitted her medical opinion in a February 2, 2012 Mental Impairment Questionnaire. That questionnaire indicated, among other things, that the Plaintiff had a GAF of 50, with the Plaintiff's highest GAF over the past year being a score of 55. (R. 124). Likewise, the questionnaire assessed 23 of 25 categories of mental abilities and aptitudes needed to do unskilled work. (Id.) A majority (11) of the Plaintiff's abilities and aptitudes fell into the “seriously limited but not precluded” category, with five abilities and aptitudes falling into the “limited but satisfactory” category, and Plaintiff's ability to “understand and remember short and simple instructions” and Plaintiffs ability to “ask simple questions or request assistance” falling into the “unlimited or very good category.” (R. 126-27).

         In examining Dr. Gartel's opinion, the ALJ noted that Dr. Gartel: diagnosed the Plaintiff with schizoaffective disorder, and assigned the Plaintiff a GAF Scale score of 50; stated the Plaintiff is seriously limited but not precluded in performing most aspects of unskilled work and in maintaining socially appropriate behavior; stated the Plaintiff has no restrictions on activities of daily living; stated the Plaintiff has extreme difficulties in maintaining social functioning and extreme difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; and stated that the Plaintiff has had four or more episodes of ...

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