United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER
HON. RUDOLPH T. RANDA U.S. District Judge
Plaintiff Edward Wills II appeals the denial of his applications for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. The Court is reviewing the determination of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who, having conducted a hearing, found that Wills has the following severe impairments: status post right ankle fractures, status post Achilles tendon rupture, right hand impairment, degenerative disc disease, and mental impairments of bipolar disorder, polysubstance abuse, alcohol abuse, depressive disorder, psychosis not otherwise specified, and anti-social personality disorder. (Tr. 23.) She further found that Wills’ impairments do not meet or equal any medical listing, including those found in §§ 1.00 or 12.00 of the Listing of Impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. She further found that Wills has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with limitations of frequent but not constant handling and fingering; simple, routine and repetitive work tasks involving simple work-related decisions; no public contact; only occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors; and no production-rate paced work. (Tr. 26.) Thus, she determined that Wills was not disabled.
Wills requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ’s decision, and he submitted additional evidence for consideration. (Tr. 1.) The Council summarily declined to engage in plenary review of the ALJ’s decision, making it the final determination of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-3.) 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2013).
Wills contends that the ALJ (1) improperly evaluated the medical opinions regarding functional limitations due to his mental disorder, which impacted his RFC determination and the hypothetical presented to the vocational expert (VE); (2) improperly evaluated his credibility and his RFC; and (3) posed an incomplete hypothetical to the VE. In addition, Wills contends that the evidence submitted to the Appeals Council is new and material and requires remand.
To uphold the denial of benefits, the ALJ’s decision must be supported by substantial evidence, which is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court reviews the record as a whole but does not attempt to substitute its judgment for the ALJ’s by reweighing the evidence, resolving material conflicts, or reconsidering facts or the credibility of witnesses. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 836-37 (7th Cir. 2014).
The ALJ must articulate, at least minimally, her analysis of all relevant evidence, Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994), and “the [ALJ's] decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues, ” Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Additionally, the ALJ must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
An ALJ’s credibility determination is entitled to “special deference.” Schomas, 732 F.3d at 708. The Court will reverse an ALJ’s credibility finding only if it is patently wrong. See Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 367 (7th Cir. 2013).
Evaluation of Medical Evidence
Wills contends that the ALJ improperly evaluated medical opinion evidence, indicating that 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(b)-(c) and 416.927(b)-(c) and Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at * 1, provide that “in deciding whether an individual is disabled, the adjudicator will always consider the medical opinions in the case record together with the rest of the relevant evidence.” (Pl. Br. 8, ECF No. 19.) He also asserts that the ALJ did not follow the criteria in evaluating medical sources because she did not cite applicable factors in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) and 416.927(d) as required by SSR 96-5p. (See Pl. Br. 9; see also Pl. Reply Br. 3, ECF No. 24.)
While this argument is broadly stated, Wills focuses on the ALJ’s treatment of the opinions of non-examining state agency psychologists Beth Jennings, Ph.D., and Eric Edelman, Ph.D., and that of Robert Bass, M.D. The ALJ addressed the medical opinions regarding Wills’ mental health issues summarizing as follows:
Drs. Jennings and Edelman opined that the claimant is capable of performing the basic mental demands of unskilled work with limited public contact and limited contact with coworkers and supervisor (Exs. 5A; 13F). The opinions of Drs. Jennings and Edelman are consistent with the overall record, including the claimant’s mental health treatment history, performance on mental status examinations, and documented improvement with medication. Further, their opinions are largely consistent with the observations of the consultative psychologist examiners, Drs. Polczinski and Ertl (Ex. 8F).
(Tr. 31.) The ALJ further elaborated that psychologist Jeffrey Polczinski, Psy.D., who saw Wills for a mental status evaluation, opined that Wills has adequate ability to understand at least mildly complex instructions, adequate memory for routine tasks, and intact attention and concentration. (Tr. 31.) She also cited Polczinski’s finding that although Wills understands appropriate social discourse, his characterological deficits and irritability would likely adversely affect relationships. (Id.) The ALJ also noted Polczinski’s conclusion that Wills had a poor ability to handle change and/or stress. (Id.) The ALJ expressly stated that she gave less weight to Polczinski’s opinion that Wills’ perseverance may be adversely affected by depressive tendencies because the record reflects that Wills’ symptoms improve when he takes his medication and abstains from substance abuse. (Tr. 32.)
The ALJ also noted that Richard J. Ertl, Ph.D., a psychologist, opined after a consultative examination that based on his mental status examination, Wills would be expected to be able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. (Tr. 31.) The ALJ further noted Ertl’s conclusion that with psychiatric medication, Wills’ ability to relate to others would be much improved; he would be able to maintain concentration, attention, and work pace; and he would have a normal ability to withstand routine work stressors and adapt to changes on the job. (Tr. 31-32.) The ALJ considered the factors required by the regulations and adequately articulated her reasons for giving more weight to the opinions of the two non-treating psychologists.
Wills argues that the ALJ improperly applied the opinions of Jennings and Edelman regarding activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence and pace; and decompensation. The Commissioner states that the argument is without merit. With respect to Jennings’ findings in the Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (MRFCA) form, the Commissioner counters that “[a]gency policy and the instructions on the form are clear that psychological consultants must express the claimant’s work-related limitations of function in narrative form in section III of the MRFCA form (Tr. 509-10), and that section I (Tr. 507-508) is merely a ‘worksheet to aid in deciding the presence and degree of functional limitations and the adequacy of documentation.’ POMS DI 24510.060, ” citing Johansen v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 283, 288-89 (7th Cir. 2002). (Def. Mem. 3, ECF No. 23.)
Varga states “[t]his circuit has declined to adopt a blanket rule that checked boxes in Section I of the MRFCA form indicating moderate difficulties in mental functioning need not be incorporated into a hypothetical to the VE.” 794 F.3d at 816 (citing Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 858 (7th Cir. 2014).) Nonetheless, the circuit held “in some cases, an ALJ may rely on a doctor's narrative RFC, rather than the checkboxes, where that narrative adequately encapsulates and translates those worksheet observations.” Id. (Emphasis added.)
Jennings completed the checkbox portion of MRFCA form, indicating that Wills had moderate limitation in daily activities; marked limitation in social functioning; mild limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace; and one or two episodes of decompensation. (Tr. 503.) In addition, she completed the narrative portion of the form. After summarizing Wills’ background, the results of two consultative examinations, and Wills’ hospitalization and follow-up at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she opined that Wills “has the ability to perform a range of at least low skill occupations. He should avoid occupations with freq[uent] public contact or contact with [large] groups, due to his anger and irritability. He has been actively searching for jobs.” (Tr. 510.) Edelman completed a Disability Determination Explanation Form indicating that Wills had moderate limitations in daily activities; social functioning; and concentration, persistence, and pace; and one or two episodes of decompensation. (Tr. 118.)
Wills argues that the ALJ’s conclusions at step two were inconsistent with the findings of Jennings and/or Edelman and that the ALJ erred when she did not accept Jennings or Edelman’s opinions and did not explain why.
At step two, the ALJ indicated that Wills had no limitation in daily activities; moderate limitation in social functioning; moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace; and one to two episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (Tr. 24-25.) With regard to activities of daily living, the ALJ noted that Wills reported spending time looking for employment, doing volunteer work, hanging out with friends, watching television and doing chores. Although Wills reported needing reminders, he admitted tending to his personal care independently. Therefore, the ALJ concluded the record demonstrated that Wills’ mental impairments did not cause any restriction in his daily activities. This finding differs from the moderate limitations found by Jennings and Edelman. However, Edelman remarked that Wills was “able to count change and pay bills, able to leave the home alone and use public transp[ortation].” (Tr. 119.) The ALJ also noted a conflict between Wills’ reports of limited activities and the overall record, which demonstrated that mental impairments did not cause restrictions in his daily activities. (Tr. 25.) The ALJ concluded that Wills’ medically determinable impairments could cause his symptoms, but his claim as to the intensity and impact on function was not consistent with the totality of the evidence. (Tr. 27-29.) Contrary to Wills’ contention, the ALJ adequately articulated her reasons for finding that his daily activities were not limited, and those findings are supported by substantial evidence.
In social functioning, the ALJ discussed Wills’ anti-social behavior and noted that it had been observed by mental health providers. However, the ALJ concluded that Wills’ documented daily activities and the fact that treating physicians described him as cooperative and calm when compliant with his medication warranted a finding of moderate limitation. This, again, differs from Jennings’ finding of marked limitations, but it is consistent with Edelman’s finding of moderate limitation. The ALJ cited the reasons for her determination, and Edelman’s finding provides substantial evidence to support it.
When discussing Wills’ concentration, persistence, and pace, the ALJ noted that Wills reported an inability to concentrate for more than three minutes. However, she indicated that Wills’ documented daily activities required some degree of concentration. This, together with the reports of examining providers indicating that Wills had good concentration and attention and consistently displayed linear and goal-orientated thought process and good memory-even when depressed or irritable-were the basis for her finding of ...