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Reginald J. v. Saul

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

December 17, 2019

Reginald J., Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Defendant.


          Manish S. Shah, United States District Judge

         Reginald J.[1] contests the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying him supplemental security income (“SSI”) based on disability.[2] For reasons explained below, I affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         I. Legal Standards

         Because plaintiff is a pro se litigant, I interpret his submission liberally and will address any logical argument I am able to identify. Parker v. Four Seasons Hotels, Ltd., 845 F.3d 807, 811 (7th Cir. 2017). I can affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's decision, with or without remanding the case for a rehearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Only a “final decision” of the Social Security Commissioner is subject to judicial review. Id. A ruling by the Appeals Council is considered a final decision. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.[3] In plaintiff's case, the Appeals Council adopted many of the findings and conclusions of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”). [10-1] at 8.[4]

         II. Background

         Reginald J. received SSI disability payments as a child for attention and learning disorders. [10-1] at 71, 132. After he turned eighteen in February 2013, the agency conducted a redetermination of his benefits. [10-1] at 133. Unlike disability for children, SSI disability for adults depends on the adult's ability to work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.987(b). Some people have medical problems but are still able to work. On June 10, 2013, the agency concluded that plaintiff was able to perform unskilled work despite his limitations, and therefore denied him SSI disability benefits. [10-1] at 133.

         He appealed the decision, stating that he continued to be disabled as an adult because of attention, learning, and mood disorders. Id. at 151. In February 2015, the SSA notified plaintiff that his appeal failed, and he was not considered disabled. Id. at 159. He then requested review by an ALJ in March 2015. Id. at 165. A hearing was held on April 4, 2016, at which plaintiff, his mother, and a vocational expert testified. Id. at 71. The ALJ issued a decision on October 4, 2016. Id. at 80. After an independent review of plaintiff's case, the ALJ agreed that plaintiff was not disabled for SSI purposes. Id.

         In her decision, the ALJ indicated her review of plaintiff's health conditions was from the date of his eighteenth birthday in February 2013 to the present, which was October 2016 at the time. Id. at 71. She explained the five-step test used to evaluate adult disability. Id. at 72-73; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At each step, the ALJ was required to apply a “special technique” used for evaluating applicants with mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a.

         The first step, which considers the applicant's employment, does not apply to age-18 redeterminations, so the ALJ proceeded to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 416.987(b); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b); [10-1] at 72.

         Steps two focuses on the severity of the applicant's health conditions. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). This step eliminates applicants with non-severe problems-people whose health conditions only have a minimal effect on their ability to perform basic work activities, like walking or understanding. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522; SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856 (1985). Without any explanation, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's health conditions were severe. [10-1] at 73.

         Step three evaluates whether the applicant has a disorder, or the equivalent of a disorder, that the SSA already recognizes as a disability that prevents individuals from working. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). This step streamlines the process by identifying applicants that qualify for SSI disability without having to complete steps four and five. Under the regulations that were effective at the time, which impacted the “special technique, ” the ALJ determined that plaintiff had “organic mental disorders” and “affective disorders, ” but that none of his disorders severely limited his ability to function in the four categories: daily living; socializing; concentration, persistence, pace; and decompensation. [10-1] at 75. The ALJ explained that plaintiff's disorders only mildly limited his daily life activities, based on his brief college attendance, self-care routine, semiprofessional basketball career, and job at a nursing home. Id. While she noted his poor eye contact and quiet demeanor, the ALJ said plaintiff's social functioning was only mildly limited based on the amount of time he spent with friends and playing basketball. Id. The ALJ did find that he faced moderate restrictions with his ability to concentrate, persist, and pace himself, based on his longstanding ADD and learning disorder diagnoses, and the testimony of plaintiff and his mother. Id. The ALJ found there was no evidence of decompensation (physical or mental deterioration). Id. Because plaintiff only faced “mild” and “moderate” restrictions, and not more severe limitations, plaintiff's disorders did not amount to disabilities already recognized by SSA. Id. On the scale of “none, ” “mild, ” “moderate, ” “marked, ” and “extreme” restrictions, he needed at least two “marked” restrictions or one “extreme” restriction to qualify. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(b)(2)(ii). The ALJ also noted that none of the physicians said that plaintiff's health conditions were acute enough to qualify. [10-1] at 73.

         When an applicant's impairments are severe under step two (because they have more than a minimal effect on the applicant's ability to do basic work) but are not recognized disorders under step three, the ALJ must determine the applicant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) in order to complete steps four and five of the adult disability test. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). An applicant's RFC represents the most physical and mental activity the applicant can do in a work setting-8 hours a day, 5 days a week-despite his medical impairments. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (Jul. 2, 1996). This is a broad assessment that considers: 1) all the relevant evidence, medical and non-medical; 2) all the applicant's limitations, including non-severe ones; and 3) the applicant's physical (exertional) limitations and nonphysical (nonexertional) limitations. Id.

         The ALJ considered plaintiff's symptoms, objective medical evidence, opinion evidence, and all other relevant evidence and concluded that he had “medically determinable impairments.” [10-1] at 74. She reviewed plaintiff's and his mother's testimony, noting their statements about his anxiety, mood swings, self-care, failure to take medication, basketball routine, and college experience. Id. The ALJ also incorporated her findings based on the “special technique, ” which evidenced plaintiff's nonphysical limitations in his daily activities, socializing, and cognitive abilities. Id. at 75. The ALJ did not discuss any exertional limitations.[5] She reviewed plaintiff's school and medical records, noting that he responded well to medicine but refused to take it. Id. at 76. The ALJ also explained the weight she gave to certain opinions and examinations, based on their consistency with objective medical evidence and the overall record.[6] Id. at 77-78. Ultimately the ALJ concluded that plaintiff experienced health problems but that they did not limit his ability to perform basic work activities, based on his active social life and basketball workout routine. Id. at 78. She noted his noncompliance with his medication but said he was still able to function relatively well even without medication. Id. Based on evidence of his limitations and abilities, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the capacity to understand simple instructions; perform routine, repetitive tasks; engage in simple decision-making; and tolerate occasional changes in the workplace, as long as he had no public interaction. Id.

         Step four of the disability test evaluates whether an applicant can perform any past work based on their current RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv); 20 CFR § 416.965. The ALJ skipped this step ...

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