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Ebert v. Berryhill

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

May 2, 2018

GREGG EBERT, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Gregg Ebert ("Plaintiff) filed this action seeking judicial review of the final administrative decision of Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner''' or "Defendant"), denying Plaintiffs application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the following reasons, Plaintiffs motion is denied. Defendant's motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 15, 2014, Plaintiff filed his DIB application, alleging that he became disabled on August 1, 2009 due to Human Immunodeficiency Virus ("HIV"), Diabetes, and Neuropathy. After an initial denial and denial on reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a timely request for an administrative hearing. On November 6, 2015, Plaintiff amended his alleged date of disability onset to May 28, 2013, and alleged that his disability was due to diabetic neuropathy, knee arthritis, and mental impairments including: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), generalized anxiety, and cluster B personality traits. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALT') on November 9, 2015. A vocational expert and a medical expert also testified.

         On December 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiffs application for benefits, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. The decision followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled under the SSA. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. As an initial matter, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements on December 31, 2014 (the "date last insured"). At step one, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his amended alleged onset date through the date last insured. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: HIV. diabetes, obesity, and degenerative joint disease of the knees bilaterally. As for Plaintiffs alleged mental impairments, the ALJ concluded that: "'[t]he claimant's medically determinable mental impairments of anxiety and depression considered singly and in combination, did not cause more than minimal limitation in claimant's ability to perform basic mental work activities and were therefore nonsevere." Administrative Record (hereinafter "R."), 122.

         In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ utilized the "special technique" for assessment of mental impairments. The special technique requires that the ALJ evaluate the claimant's "pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings" to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)(1). If the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment, then the ALJ must document that finding and rate the degree of functional limitation in four broad areas: activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520a(c)(3).

         In his application of the special technique, the ALJ considered statements made by Plaintiff in his Adult Function Report ("AFR"), completed by Plaintiff on June 5, 2014. R. 122, 320; Pl.'s Reply in Supp. at 4. In his AFR, Plaintiff stated that: he has no trouble managing his personal care and that he is able to prepare daily means; he is able to use public transportation and shop in stores; he spends time with friends weekly or bi-weekly; he is able to follow both written and spoken instructions without difficulty; and he had no limitations in the areas of completing tasks, concentration, or understanding. Based on these statements, the ALJ found no limitation in the areas of: activities of daily living; social functioning; and concentration, persistence, or pace. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff experienced no episodes of decompensation. The ALJ concluded that "[b]ecause the claimant's medically determinable mental impairments caused no more than 'mild' limitation in any of the first three functional areas and "no' episodes of decompensation which have been of extended duration in the fourth area, they were nonsevere." R. 122.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §404.1520(d), § 4041525, § 4041526). Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had residual function capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) except the claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The ALF further found that Plaintiff should avoid loud background noises, and he must work in a temperature controlled climate.

         As part of the RFC analysis, the ALJ considered the mental residual function capacity questionnaire ("medical source statement") completed by Katy Howe, LCSW on October 30, 2015. R. 126, 805. The ALJ noted that the medical source statement opined that Plaintiff had between limited and limited but satisfactory mental abilities to do unskilled work, semi-skilled work, skilled work, and particular types of jobs. R. 126. The ALJ also noted Ms. Howe's opinion that Plaintiffs anxiety and intermittent depression limits his ability to complete daily tasks. The ALJ considered that Ms. Howe assigned Plaintiff a GAF score of 60, which is indicative of moderate symptoms or moderate difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning. Finally, the ALJ stated that he "gives some weight to Ms. Howe's opinion and GAF score of the claimant'' and that Ms. Howe's "opinion is generally consistent with the claimant's Adult Function Report, which indicates little or no limitations in functional areas." Id. However, the ALJ further stated that he only gave "partial weight" to Ms. Howe's opinion "because the claimant's primary impairments relating to his allegation of disability are physical and not mental." Id.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a travel agent because this work did not require performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiffs RFC. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined by the SSA, at any time from the alleged onset date through the date last insured. The Social Security Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009).


         A. Standard of Decision

         "Judicial Review of Administrative decisions under the Social Security Act is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)." Allord v. Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 415 (7th Cir. 2011). " ALJ's decision constitutes the final action of the Social Security Administration, the reviewing district court examines the ALJ's decision to determine whether substantial evidence supports it and whether the ALJ applied the proper legal criteria." Id. This is a deferential standard. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). "Substantial evidence is 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). "When reviewing for substantial evidence, [courts] do not displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence or making credibility determinations." Id.

         "In rendering [his] decision, the ALJ must 'build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, but he need not provide a complete written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence.'" Shideler v. Astrue. 688 F.3d 306, 310 (7th Cir. 2012) (quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005)). The Court "will uphold a decision so long as the evidence supports it and the ALJ explains [his] analysis of that evidence with 'enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate ...

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