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Napper v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 27, 2018

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



         Deborah Napper seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claim for a period of supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         Napper previously received SSI from 2007 through 2009. (Pl.'s Br. at 1, Docket # 14.) Napper's SSI benefits were stopped because she received a medical settlement. (Id.) After Napper spent down the settlement below the asset limit for SSI, she filed a new application for SSI on May 4, 2011 alleging onset of her disability as of February 1, 2007. (Tr. 12.) Napper claims disability based on bipolar disorder, learning disability, a broken hip, and schizophrenia. (Tr. 307.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on February 4, 2015. (Tr. 37.) Napper, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing, as did Jacquelyn Wenkman, a vocational expert and Dr. N. Timothy Lynch, an impartial medical expert. (Id.)

         In a written decision issued July 10, 2015, the ALJ found Napper had the severe impairments of obesity, a hip impairment, a knee impairment, a mood disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. (Tr. 14.) The ALJ further found that Napper did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (the “Listings”). The ALJ found Napper had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, except she cannot deal with the public, can have limited interaction (one to three brief contacts per shift) with supervisors, cannot perform work in cooperation or concert with co-workers, and cannot perform jobs that require interaction with co-workers. (Tr. 17.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review. Napper was approved on April 24, 2017 on her subsequent re-application for SSI benefits with an onset date of October 6, 2016. (Pl.'s Reply Br. at 1, Docket # 18.) Thus, Napper clarified that her appeal is only for the closed period of Napper's alleged onset date of February 1, 2007 to October 5, 2016. (Id.)


         1. Applicable Legal Standards

         The Commissioner's final decision will be upheld if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported his decision with substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). Substantial evidence is not conclusive evidence; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Although a decision denying benefits need not discuss every piece of evidence, remand is appropriate when an ALJ fails to provide adequate support for the conclusions drawn. Jelinek, 662 F.3d at 811. The ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).

         The ALJ is also expected to follow the SSA's rulings and regulations in making a determination. Failure to do so, unless the error is harmless, requires reversal. Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 736-37 (7th Cir. 2006). In reviewing the entire record, the court does not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reconsidering facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Finally, judicial review is limited to the rationales offered by the ALJ. Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 93-95 (1943); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 307 (7th Cir. 2010)).

         2. Application to this Case

         Napper alleges that the ALJ erred in four ways. First, she argues the ALJ improperly assessed her RFC by failing to account for her variable functioning, her intellectual deficits, and her deficiencies in concentration, persistence, or pace. Second, Napper argues the ALJ failed to consider whether she met Listing 12.05. Third, Napper argues the ALJ improperly weighed the opinions of her treating medical providers, specifically Dr. Eleasar San Agustin and Dr. Mariah Hewitt. Finally, she argues the ALJ erred in finding her allegations of disabling symptoms lacked credibility. I will address each argument in turn.

         2.1 RFC Assessment

         Napper argues the ALJ erred in determining her RFC in three ways. First, she argues the ALJ failed to account for variable functioning in the RFC assessment. Second, she argues the ALJ failed to account for her intellectual deficits. And third, she argues that although the ALJ found Napper had either mild or moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, he did not properly account for that limitation in the RFC.

         RFC is the most the claimant can do in a work setting “despite her limitations.” Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000-01 (7th Cir. 2004); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); SSR 96-8p. The Administration must consider all of the claimant's known, medically determinable impairments when assessing RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2), (e). Napper argues the ALJ failed to account for her variable functioning and cherry-picked the record. Specifically, Napper argues the ALJ failed to acknowledge evidence of her flat and restricted affect and monotonous speech; the fact her treating provider recommended ...

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