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Michael E. v. Saul

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

July 9, 2019

MICHAEL E. Claimant
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey T. Gilbert 'United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Michael E.[1] ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Andrew Saul, [2] Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("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. 6], The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment [ECF Nos. 12, 19] pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). For the reasons discussed below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 12] is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion [ECF No. 19] is denied.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         An application for SSI benefits was protectively filed on Claimant's behalf on October 1, 2014, as Claimant was under the age of 18 at the time. (R. 177-182). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ'). (R. 100-15). On March 13, 2017, Claimant, who by then had turned 18, appeared and testified at a hearing before ALJ Bill Laskaris. (R. 41-53). The ALJ also heard testimony at the hearing from Claimant's parents, Mark and Stephanie E., and vocational expert ("VE") Glee Ann L. Kehr. (R. 54-70).

         On May 30, 2017, the ALJ denied Claimant's claim for SSI after considering his limitations as both a child and an adult, (R. 13-28). In assessing Claimant as a child, the ALJ followed the three-step evaluation process required by Social Security regulations for individuals under the age of 18. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(a). At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date his application was filed on October 1, 2014. (R. 17). At step two, the ALJ found that prior to turning 18 years old, Claimant had the following severe impairments under 20 C.F.R. 416.924(c): intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder/Asperger syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. (R. 18). At step three, due to the absence of medical records before Claimant turned 18, the ALJ determined that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. 416.920(d), 416.924, 416.925, and 416.926. (R. 18). After assessing six domains, the ALJ also found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that functionally equaled the listings in 20 C.F.R. 416.924(d) and 416.926(a). (R. 19-25). The six domains were as follows; (1) acquiring and using information, (2) attending and completing tasks, (3) interacting and relating with others, (4) moving about and manipulating objects, (5) caring for yourself, and (6) health and physical well-being. (R. 19-25). The ALJ concluded that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that resulted in either "marked" limitations in two domains of functioning or "extreme" limitation in one domain of functioning. Because of this determination at step three, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Act prior to attaining the age of 18. (R. 25).

         In finding Claimant not disabled as an adult, the ALJ's opinion followed the five-step evaluation process required by Social Security regulations for individuals over the age of 18. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date his application was filed on October 1, 2014. (R. 17, 27). At step two, the ALJ found that since turning 18 years old, Claimant has continued to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments as defined by 20 C.F.R. 416.9290(c). (R. 25). At step three, the ALJ determined that since attaining the age of 18, Claimant has not had 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. 25-26). The ALJ then found Claimant had the residual functional capacity[3] ("RFC") to:

"perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(c) except he is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks that are performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements that involve only simple work-related decisions with few, if any, work place changes. He should only have brief and superficial interaction with supervisors and co-workers and no interaction with the public. Further, he must be reminded of tasks twice a day, which are quick reminders, not a re-demonstration."

         (R. 26). Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Claimant had no past relevant work. (R. 27). Finally, at step five, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant can perform, such as laundry worker, janitor, and store laborer. (R. 27-28). Because of this determination at step five, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Act as an adult. (R. 28). The Appeals Council declined to review the matter on June 5, 2018 (R. 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by this Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see, e.g., Smith v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1765, 1775 (2019); Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         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 (2000). Judicial review is limited to determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in reaching his or her decision. See 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 of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Substantial evidence "means - and means only - such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (internal quotations omitted); see also, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A "mere scintilla" of evidence is not enough. Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154; 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) (internal quotations omitted). In other words, if the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot stand. See 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) (internal quotations omitted). The reviewing court may not, however, "displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         ANALYSIS

         Claimant confines his arguments on appeal to the ALJ's findings after he attained the age of 18. To that effect, Claimant argues that the ALJ erred in four of his conclusions, none of which, according to Claimant, were harmless error. [ECF No. 12]. With respect to the RFC assessment and the ALJ's hypothetical to the VE, Claimant argues that neither adequately accommodated Claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace. Claimant further contends that the following two conclusions in the RFC were not supported by substantial evidence: (1) that Claimant required only quick reminders, not re-demonstrations, twice a day, and (2) that Claimant could perform work that involved Level 2 reasoning despite his ...


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