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Ricardo C. v. Saul

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

August 27, 2019

Ricardo C., Plaintiff,
Andrew M. Saul, Defendant.


          Manish S. Shah United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Ricardo C.[1] appeals the Social Security Administration's denial of his application for disability benefits.[2] An ALJ heard plaintiff's case and denied his application for benefits because the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled. Ricardo C. petitioned the Appeals Council for review of the denial, but the Council denied his request, resulting in his appeal to this court. The Commissioner moves for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the motion is denied, and the ALJ's decision is reversed and remanded.

         I. Legal Standard

         Because the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's ruling is the Commissioner's final decision for review. See Jozefyk v. Berryhill, 923 F.3d 492, 496 (7th Cir. 2019). The ALJ's ruling stands unless the decision is not supported by substantial evidence or is the result of a legal error. L.D.R. by Wagner v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 1146, 1151 (7th Cir. 2019). Substantial evidence means that which a reasonable person could accept as enough to support the conclusion. Id. at 1151-52. I do not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, determine credibility, or otherwise substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Id. at 1152. Though my review is deferential, the ALJ “must build an ‘accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion'” and “explain [his] decision in such a way that allows [me] to determine whether [he] reached [his] decision in a rational manner, logically based on [his] specific findings and the evidence in the record.” McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889-90 (7th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted).

         II. Background

         In August 2014, Ricardo C. applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income based on certain physical and mental impairments, including schizophrenia. A.R. 186, 219.[3] After his application was denied, reconsidered, and denied again, he filed a written request for a hearing. A.R. 111, 123, 126. The ALJ held a hearing on July 13, 2016. A.R. 44.

         At the hearing, plaintiff testified that his depression prevents him from working and that on days when he is symptomatic, he just sits on the porch while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. A.R. 52-53. He said he was taking medication for his depression, which helped, but a recent move interrupted his access to the medication and the medication made him restless. A.R. 53-54. Plaintiff also reported having schizophrenia and hearing voices. A.R. 54. He said the schizophrenia medication had negative side effects too-it slowed him down, made his concentration “bad, ” caused him to “drift off” or “blank out, ” and resulted in restlessness. A.R. 54- 55. He said the voices he hears-which tell him to do things-come and go, and sometimes it feels like he hears them every day. A.R. 54. Plaintiff reported visual hallucinations too. A.R. 62. He also testified about other limitations, including anxiety, thyroid issues, diabetes, and high blood pressure. A.R. 56-57. When questioned about his daily activities, he said his godmother cooks his meals for him since he can't concentrate and has tremors. A.R. 59. He also said he doesn't make his bed, clean, do laundry, read, or watch television. A.R. 59-60.

         The vocational expert testified next. The ALJ asked the expert hypotheticals premised on a 48-year-old man with a high school education and plaintiff's work experience (as a forklift operator) doing work at a medium level of exertion that was limited to (1) “simple, routine, repetitive tasks, ” (2) “performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, ” (3) “involving only simple work-related decisions, ” (4) “with few if any work place changes, ” and (5) having “only brief and superficial interaction with the public” and co-workers. A.R. 65-66. First, the ALJ asked whether the hypothetical man could do plaintiff's earlier job as a forklift operator, and the expert said no. A.R. 66. Next, he asked whether this hypothetical man could do other “medium, unskilled jobs” in the economy, and she said yes-he could be a hospital cleaner, a janitor, or a hospital food service worker. A.R. 66. Then the ALJ asked whether there were any medium, unskilled jobs for the hypothetical man if he was going to miss two days of work each month, and the expert said no. A.R. 66-67. Those missed days were “job preclusive.” A.R. 67. Last, the ALJ asked whether there were any medium, unskilled jobs for the hypothetical man if he was going to be off task for 20 percent of the work day, and the expert replied that no, that would be job preclusive too. A.R. 67. The expert testified that “[t]he standard is approximately, for these types of jobs, unskilled, you have to be … on task at least 85 percent of the time.” A.R. 67.

         Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if he is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a 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.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1)(A). The ALJ found that plaintiff is not disabled. A.R. 24. He came to this conclusion by following the five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At Step 1, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of his disability. A.R. 26. At Steps 2 and 3, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has severe impairments of anxiety, schizophrenia, and polysubstance abuse, but that the impairments do not meet the requirements to establish a presumptive disability. A.R. 26-28. At Steps 3 and 4, the ALJ found that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to do “medium work, ” so long as it is restricted to “simple, routine and repetitive tasks[;] performed in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements; involving only simple, work-related decisions; and with few, if any work place changes” and plaintiff “should have only brief and superficial interaction with the public and co-workers.” A.R. 28-29. Given this RFC, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work as a forklift operator. A.R. 35. And at Step 5, the ALJ found that plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC are compatible with jobs that exist in sufficient numbers in the economy (the hospital cleaner, janitor, and hospital food service worker positions that the expert mentioned), so plaintiff is not disabled. A.R. 35-36.

         III. Analysis

         A. RFC Assessment

         Ricardo C. argues that the ALJ did not adequately consider evidence of his low energy, sleepiness, and difficulty concentrating when crafting the RFC. “[B]oth the hypothetical posed to the [vocational expert] and the ALJ's RFC assessment must incorporate all of the claimant's limitations supported by the medical record.” Winsted v. Berryhill, 923 F.3d 472, 476 (7th Cir. 2019) (quoting Varga v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 809, 813 (7th Cir. 2015)). “This includes any deficiencies the claimant may have in concentration, persistence, or pace.” Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 857 (7th Cir. 2014).

         The ALJ recognized that plaintiff is moderately limited in “concentration, persistence, or pace.” A.R. 28, 34.[4] The ALJ didn't quite explain plaintiff's specific limitations, but he gave “great weight” to the opinion of Dr. Williams, a non-examining state agency psychological consultant. A.R. 34. Dr. Williams concluded that plaintiff “has an impairment in ability to sustain attention and concentration, ” opined that plaintiff “appears to be able to complete [a] normal workweek with moderate interruptions from psychologically based symptoms, ” and observed “moderate impairment in maintaining attention and concentration adequately for 2hour periods in an 8-hour work day.” A.R. 34.

         In justifying his RFC assessment, the ALJ explained that he “accommodated [plaintiff's] moderate limitations especially in concentration, persistence or pace by limiting him to a work environment free of fast paced production requirements and involving only simple work related decisions and few if any work place changes.” A.R. 34-35. But none of those restrictions address plaintiff's moderate limitation on concentration, persistence, and pace. See DeCamp v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 671, 676 (7th Cir. 2019) (“[T]here is no basis to suggest that eliminating jobs with strict production quotas or a fast pace may serve as a proxy for including a moderate limitation on concentration, persistence, and pace.”); Yurt, 758 F.3d at 858-59 (“[W]e have repeatedly rejected the notion that a hypothetical like the one here confining the claimant to simple, routine tasks and limited interactions with others adequately captures temperamental deficiencies and limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace.”). Suppose plaintiff got a job as a janitor that required him to clean just one room during his shift. If he was unable to concentrate and stay on task-actually clean-then he couldn't do the job, no ...

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