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Norman v. Berryhill

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

June 19, 2019

SONYA NORMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Harry D. Leinenweber, Judge

         Plaintiff Sonya Norman seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying her supplemental security income disability benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons stated herein, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this Opinion and Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Norman applied for supplemental income disability benefits in November 2014, alleging that she had been disabled since July 11, 2014, due to major depression, anxiety, panic attacks, crying spells, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (Administrative Record (AR) at 17, 317, 319, 320, 414, 491, Dkt. No. 8.) Norman was in an abusive relationship for approximately fourteen years. (AR at 59.) She was not permitted to work or leave sight of her abuser-Norman's daughter's father. (AR at 59-61.) Norman eventually escaped from her abuser in 2012, and she lived in a car with her daughter for two years, until she received shelter from a homeless prevention service. (AR at 59-60, 72.) Norman feared for her life and continued to live in fear that her abuser would return. (AR at 61-63.)

         On May 29, 2015, treating psychiatrist Viktoria Erhardt, M.D. stated that Norman had “mild limitations in the ability to make judgments on simple tasks, moderate limitations carrying out complex instructions, marked limitations in the ability to make judgements on complex decisions, extreme limitations responding appropriately to usual work situations and changes in a routine work setting, and extreme limitations interacting appropriately with the public, supervisors, and co-workers.” (Pl.'s Br. at 2, Dkt. No. 10 (citing AR 362-63).) Dr. Erhardt diagnosed Norman with insomnia. (AR at 463.) On September 18, 2015, Advanced Practice Nurse Kathryn Peoples-Robinson stated that Norman had depressive disorder, educational and occupational problems, and problems in social environment. (AR at 418.) On March 15, 2017, Maryanne Morris, Norman's case manager, stated that Norman's conditions worsened because of her abuser finding ways to distress her. (AR at 509.) Moreover, Morris said Norman struggled with highs and lows of her condition, namely anxiety depression, and panic attacks, and Norman suffered from excessive stress because of the domestic violence she experienced. (Id.) Finally, in January 2015, Norman had received a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 78, which decreased to 50 when she was evaluated again on August 13, 2015, and again to 46 on July 12, 2016. (AR at 21, 374, 537.) The GAF scale is used to rate how serious a mental illness may be. It measures how much a person's symptoms affect his or her day-to-day life on a scale of 0 to 100, the latter end of the scale constituting superior functioning.

         Procedurally, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied Norman's application for supplemental disability benefits on September 3, 2015, and again on reconsideration on November 3, 2015. (AR at 17.) Norman filed a timely request for a hearing and appeared before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Melissa M. Santiago, who denied Norman benefits on June 18, 2017. (AR at 25.) The ALJ found that Norman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 17, 2014, the application date, and Norman had severe impairments, such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. (AR at 19.) She also found that Norman retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at “all exertional levels, ” except she is limited to “simple and routine instructions and tasks; occasional interaction with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors; and no assembly work.” (AR at 20.) The ALJ found that Norman had no past relevant work and a limited education, (AR at 20), and concluded that there were a significant number of jobs that existed in the national economy that Norman could perform. (AR at 24.)

         Norman filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which was denied on June 18, 2018. (AR at 1.) Now Norman asks this Court to review and reverse the ALJ's determination. In support of her request for reversal, Norman argues that the ALJ: (1) did not properly evaluate Norman's RFC under Social Security Regulation 96-8P; and (2) erred in evaluating Norman's subjective allegations according to Social Security Regulation 16-3P. Each argument will be considered separately.


         To recover disability benefits under the SSA, a claimant must establish that she is disabled within the meaning of the SSA. Snedden v. Colvin, No. 14 C 9038, 2016 WL 792301, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 29, 2016). A person is disabled if she is unable to perform “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 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, an ALJ must conduct a five-step inquiry, analyzing: “(1) whether the claimant is currently employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is one that the Commissioner considers conclusively disabling; (4) if the claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment, whether he can perform his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.” Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). If the claimant meets her burden of proof at steps one through four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Moore v. Astrue, 851 F.Supp.2d 1131, 1139-40 (N.D. Ill. 2012).

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act. In reviewing this decision, the Court cannot engage in its own analysis of whether Norman is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulation. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence or making credibility determinations.” Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court “will reverse an ALJ's determination only when it is not supported by substantial evidence, meaning such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 361-62 (7th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         In making its determination, the Court must “look to whether the ALJ built an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [her] conclusion that the claimant is not disabled.” Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 505, 513 (7th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The ALJ need not, however, “provide a complete written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence.” Pepper, 712 F.3d at 362 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Where the Commissioner's decision “‘lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review,' a remand is required.” Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002)).

         A. Social Security Regulation 96-8P

         Norman first argues that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her RFC. A claimant's RFC is the maximum work that she can perform despite any limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1); SSR 96-8P. “[T]he responsibility for the RFC assessment belongs with the ALJ, not a physician, [but] an ALJ cannot construct his own RFC finding without a proper medical ground and must explain how [s]he has reached [her] conclusions.” Harper v. Berryhill, No. 16 C 5075, 2017 WL 1208443, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 3, 2017) (quoting Amey v. Astrue, No. 09 C 2712, 2012 WL 366522, at *13 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 2, 2012)).

         Norman contends that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her RFC for two reasons: (1) the ALJ's determination did not account for Norman's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence or pace; and (2) the ALJ's determination about Norman's social functioning limitations is ...

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