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Mack v. Berryhill

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

July 23, 2018

KENNETH WAYNE MACK, JR., Claimant,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JEFFREY T. GILBERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Claimant Kenneth Wayne Mack, Jr. (“Claimant”) seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), denying Claimant's application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 8.] The parties have filed cross-motion for summary judgment [ECF Nos. 24 and 26], pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c) and 405(g). For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 24] is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion [ECF No. 26] is denied. This matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Claimant filed an application for SSI on January 10, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2009. (R. 174-81.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Claimant requested an administrative hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (R. 20.) On, January 20, 2015 date, Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before ALJ Percival Harmon. (R. 38-83.) The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert (“VE”) Cheryl Hoiseth. (Id.)

         On May 29, 2015, the ALJ denied Claimant's application for SSI, based on a finding that he was not disabled under the Act. (R. 20-32.) The opinion followed the five-step evaluation process required by Social Security Regulations (“SSRs”).[2] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since the application date of January 10, 2013. (R. 22.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of affective disorder, personality disorder, obesity, venous insufficiency, bleeding ulcers, mild degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, and a history of polysubstance abuse. (R. 22.) At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant 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. (R. 27.) The ALJ then assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] and concluded Claimant was capable of performing sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) with the following limitations:

[T]he ability to lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, to sit six hours out of eight, stand and walk two hours out of eight with occasional work involving stairs and ramps, and occasional crouching, kneeling, and crawling but no work involving ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant would be limited to routine repetitive and simple work. In this work he would have constant ability to understand, remember and carry out very short and simple instructions, to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods, to sustain a normal routine without special supervision, to make simple work-related decisions and use judgment, and to complete a normal work day work week without interruption from psychologically-based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. He would be limited to occasional brief and superficial interactions with the general public and would be limited to interactions up to one third of the day with coworkers, and to accept instruction and respond appropriately, to criticism from supervisors. He would also occasionally be limited in his ability to maintain socially appropriate behavior and adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness.

(R. 29.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Claimant could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 31.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant could perform. (R. 31.) Specifically, the ALJ found Claimant could work as an office clerk or hand packager. (Id.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Act. (R. 32.) The Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review on October 28, 2016, 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). See Haynes v. Baumhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final decision if the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 147 L.Ed.2d 80 (2000). Under such circumstances, the district court reviews the decision of the ALJ. (Id.) Judicial review is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in reaching his or her decision. Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). The reviewing court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). A “mere scintilla” of evidence is not enough. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). Even where there is adequate evidence in the record to support the decision, the findings will not be upheld if the ALJ does not “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion.” Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). In other words, if the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot stand. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Though the standard of review is deferential, a reviewing court must “conduct a critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). It may not, however, “displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence.” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         III. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Claimant asserts that the ALJ made three errors. First, Claimant argues that the ALJ's RFC determination with respect to Claimant's mental limitations is unsupported by substantial evidence. Second, Claimant contends that the ALJ failed to incorporate all of the mental RFC findings in the hypotheticals posed to the VE. Finally, Claimant argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Claimant's need to elevate his legs.

         A. The Mental RFC Determination

         “The RFC is an assessment of what work-related activities the claimant can perform despite [his] limitations.” Young, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1) (“Your residual functional capacity is the most you can still do de-spite your limitations.”); SSR 96-8p, at *2 (“RFC is an administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities.”). The ALJ's RFC assessment must contain a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions and explaining why any medical source opinion was not adopted if the ALJ's RFC assessment conflicts with such an opinion. SSR 96-8p, at *7 (“RFC assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts.”). Failing to explain how an ALJ arrived at the RFC conclusions is ...


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