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Stojanovic v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 20, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          DAVID E. JONES United States Magistrate Judge.

         Daniel Stojanovic, Jr., alleges that he became disabled on February 6, 2011, as a result of a number of physical and mental impairments. After the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied his applications for disability benefits, Mr. Stojanovic requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ determined that Mr. Stojanovic was capable of working notwithstanding his impairments. Mr. Stojanovic now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         Mr. Stojanovic argues that the ALJ erred in relying on a vocational expert's testimony at step five and in refusing to allow his mother to testify at the administrative hearing. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ did not commit an error of law in reaching his decision and that the decision is otherwise supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to develop a full and fair record when he excluded the testimony of Mr. Stojanovic's mother. The Court therefore will reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         Daniel Stojanovic, Jr., was born on November 28, 1974. Transcript 321, ECF Nos. 12-2-12-11. He took special education classes throughout his schooling and graduated from high school in 1993. Tr. 373-74. After completing a job-training program, Mr. Stojanovic secured a position at Bally Total Fitness doing cleaning. He worked full time for fifteen years before being laid off when the company hired a new cleaning crew. In 2011 and 2012, Mr. Stojanovic worked part time at TJ Maxx doing cleaning and stocking, but he stopped working following surgery on his right foot. Tr. 58-62. Mr. Stojanovic is single, and he has never lived on his own. Tr. 64, 373-74. As of January 2015, Mr. Stojanovic was living at his mother's house in St. Francis, Wisconsin, with his mother and brother. Tr. 29, 64-65. He was 5΄9΄΄ tall and weighed 352 pounds. Tr. 60.

         Mr. Stojanovic suffers from depression, anxiety, poor vision, and issues with his right foot. Tr. 281. In July 2012, he filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that his disability began on May 1, 2006. Tr. 239-51. After the Social Security Administration denied his applications initially, Tr. 103-28, and upon reconsideration, Tr. 129-58, Mr. Stojanovic requested a hearing before an administrative law judge, Tr. 41-48, 185-213, 223, 229-38.

         The administrative hearing was held on January 27, 2015, before ALJ Patrick J. Toal. See Tr. 49-102. Mr. Stojanovic was represented by counsel at the hearing. See Tr. 49, 163-64. The ALJ heard testimony from Mr. Stojanovic; Ajit Haldipur Janardhan, M.D., Ph.D., an impartial medical expert; and Timothy Tansey, Ph.D., C.R.C., C.V.E., an impartial vocational expert. See Tr. 57-98; see also Tr. 224-28, 214-15. The ALJ, however, did not permit testimony from Mr. Stojanovic's mother, Luise Stojanovic. See Tr. 79-81, 98-101. At the hearing, Mr. Stojanovic amended his alleged onset date to February 6, 2011. Tr. 56-57.

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process and on February 3, 2015, he issued a decision unfavorable to Mr. Stojanovic. Tr. 9-27. The ALJ determined that (1) Mr. Stojanovic did not engage in substantial gainful activity since his amended alleged onset date; (2) Mr. Stojanovic suffered from five “severe” impairments: obesity, right foot deformities, right knee changes, vision abnormalities, and elements of an anxiety disorder and a learning disorder; (3) Mr. Stojanovic did not suffer from an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a presumptively disabling impairment; Mr. Stojanovic had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform unskilled sedentary work with certain physical and mental restrictions; (4) Mr. Stojanovic could not perform his past relevant work as a locker-room attendant; and (5) Mr. Stojanovic remained capable of performing the requirements of various unskilled, sedentary occupations. See Tr. 12-21. Based on those findings, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Stojanovic was not disabled.

         Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Stojanovic's request for review, Tr. 1-6, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, see Loveless v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 502, 506 (7th Cir. 2016).

         Mr. Stojanovic filed this action on September 27, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Complaint, ECF No. 1. The matter was reassigned to this Court after the parties consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction. See Consent to Proceed Before a U.S. Magistrate Judge, ECF Nos. 4, 8 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b)). It is now fully briefed and ready for disposition. See Plaintiff's Brief, ECF No. 13; Defendant's Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision; ECF No. 16; Plaintiff's Reply Brief, ECF No. 17; and Plaintiff's Supplemental Brief, ECF No. 19.

         II. Standard of Review

         “Judicial review of Administration decisions under the Social Security Act is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).” Allord v. Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 415 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010)). Pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g), federal courts have the power to affirm, reverse, or modify the Commissioner's decision, with or without remanding the matter for a rehearing.

         Section 205(g) of the Act limits the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See § 405(g). As such, the Commissioner's findings of fact shall be conclusive if they are supported by “substantial evidence.” See § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)) (other citations omitted). The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, “even if an alternative position is also supported by substantial evidence.” Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Arkansas v. Oklahoma, 503 U.S. 91, 113 (1992)).

         In reviewing the record, courts “may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute [their] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003)). Rather, reviewing courts must determine whether the ALJ built an “accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result to afford the claimant meaningful judicial review of the administrative findings.” Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Blakes v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir. 2003); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001)). The ALJ's decision must be reversed “[i]f the evidence does not support the conclusion.” Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837 (citing Blakes, 331 F.3d at 569). Likewise, reviewing courts must remand “[a] decision that lacks adequate discussion of the issues.” Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121 (citations omitted).

         Reversal also is warranted “if the ALJ committed an error of law or if the ALJ based the decision on serious factual mistakes or omissions, ” regardless of whether the decision is otherwise supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837 (citations omitted). An ALJ commits an error of law if his decision “fails to comply with the Commissioner's regulations and rulings.” Brown v. Barnhart, 298 F.Supp.2d 773, 779 (E.D. Wis. 2004) (citing Prince v. Sullivan, 933 F.2d 598, 602 (7th Cir. 1991)). Reversal is not required, however, if the error is ...

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