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Stetter v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

September 23, 2019

KATE M. STETTER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

          WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, CHIEF JUDGE

         This is an action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Kate M. Stetter's application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons given below, the decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and has been treated for mental health issues since at least 2012. On December 13, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income with an alleged onset date of June 1, 2013. She alleged disability due to bipolar disorder and ADHD. R. 380. After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). ALJ Christopher Messina held a hearing on November 9, 2016. Both Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. R. 237-78.

         At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 29 years old. R. 241. She lived with her husband and two of her three children. R. 242. Plaintiff testified that she had a high school education and that she received special education services throughout her schooling. She testified that she had not worked since 2013. When she was employed, she worked for various cleaning companies. R. 254. She reported that she would quit her job after approximately four months of employment because she became strongly overwhelmed and had a hard time coping. R. 242. She testified that she had a difficult time being around other people and with social interaction, being on time, and understanding and following directions. R. 242-43. Plaintiff indicated that when she is in a manic phase she tends to overspend money but when she's in a depressive, isolated mood, she struggles to go to the grocery store on her own because she cannot focus or concentrate. Her husband watches their children the majority of the time. R. 243.

         She testified that she has difficulty remembering things due to a traumatic brain injury she sustained in a 2007 car accident and the medications she takes. R. 257. She claimed that she is unable to work because of her mental health problems. R. 243. Plaintiff testified that she sees a psychiatrist and a therapist but reported that she struggles with her current medication and feels shaky and lightheaded. R. 245-46, 261. She testified that her husband had to take a week of FMLA leave because she was unable to cope at home after she was taken off of her medications due to their side effects. R. 247-48.

         Plaintiff testified that her typical day consists of being home with her two children. If she is having a bad day, her husband, who works third shift, will take care of the children during the day and work in the evening. R. 267. She indicated that, while she struggles with depression three weeks out of the month, she can moderately take care of herself. R. 262. As to activities of daily living, Plaintiff testified that she does not “wrap her head around cooking.” She does the dishes, laundry, and cleans up the toys. R. 267. Plaintiff indicated that she struggles to interact with her children and coped by cleaning. Id. She testified that when she has a manic episode, which usually lasts for a week, she has a tendency to overspend and to seek attention from other men. R. 269-70. She indicated that she would not be able to work when she has either manic or depressive episodes because she would be emotionally unstable. R. 270.

         In a 14-page decision dated March 1, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. R. 218-31. Following the agency's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 13, 2013, the application date. R. 220. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, mood disorder, ADHD, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Id. He noted that, while the record referred to other impairments, including a traumatic brain injury, hypothyroidism, and obesity, he found these conditions were non-severe. R. 220-21. At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 221.

         After summarizing the record, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: “understand and carry out no more than simple instructions; occasional decisionmaking and occasional changes in a work setting; no production rate or pace work; no contact with the public; and occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors.” R. 222. With these limitations, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. R. 229. At step five, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as cleaner/housekeeper, order filler, and office helper. R. 230. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. R. 231. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Thereafter, Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The question before the court is not whether it agrees with the Commissioner that Plaintiff is not disabled. Judicial review of the decisions of administrative agencies is intended to be deferential. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010). The Social Security Act specifies that the “findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that “[u]nder the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the agency's factual determinations.” Beistek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “The phrase ‘substantial evidence, '” the Court explained, “is a ‘term of art' used throughout administrative law to describe how courts are to review agency factfinding.” Id. “And whatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, ” the Court noted, “the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Id. Substantial evidence is “‘more than a mere scintilla.' . . . It means-and means only-‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Consolidated Edison, 305 U.S. at 229).

         “Although an ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record, the ALJ may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is contrary to the ruling.” Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2009); Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 474 (7th Cir. 2004)). The ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). Given this standard, and because a reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, “challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence rarely succeed.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Additionally, the ALJ is 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). 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)).

         ANALYSIS

         A. Assessment of ...


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