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Pinkston v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

October 11, 2019




         Talmadge Pinkston is a former Marine who alleges he is unable to work primarily because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (Tr. 293.) Although the VA found him to be fifty percent disabled (Tr. 38) (later increased to seventy percent and, as of August 1, 2018, one-hundred percent (Tr. 7; see also ECF No. 13-1 at 1-5)), the Commissioner denied Pinktson's applications for social security disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits. Pinkston asks this court to review that decision. The final decision of the Commissioner is set forth in the July 2, 2018 decision of an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 13-27.)

         The ALJ found that Pinkston suffered from the following severe impairments: “depressive disorder, history of alcohol addiction in sustained remission, and anxiety disorders (including post-traumatic stress disorder).” (Tr. 19.) These impairments did not meet or medically equal a Listing. (Tr. 19-21.) Pinkston retained “the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: he is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks, with no fast-paced work, only simple work-related decisions, occasional workplace changes, and occasional interaction with the public, coworkers and supervisors.” (Tr. 21.) According to a vocational expert (see Tr. 52-55), a person with this residual functional capacity could perform jobs that existed in substantial numbers in the national economy. Therefore, Pinkston was not disabled.

         Pinkston was represented by an attorney at the hearing before the ALJ but is now representing himself. In support of his claim, Pinkston submitted a letter in which he explains the nature of his impairments and how they affect his life. (ECF No. 13.) It does not point to any specific error of the ALJ other than to argue generally that he erred in finding Pinkston was not disabled.

         The court's role in reviewing the ALJ's decision is limited. It does not look at the evidence anew and make an independent determination as to whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120 (7th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1120-21 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Thus, it is possible that opposing conclusions both can be supported by substantial evidence. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). If the ALJ committed a material error of law, however, the court cannot affirm the ALJ's decision regardless of whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014); Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2012).

         Although the court reviews the pleadings of pro se plaintiffs more liberally than those drafted by lawyers, it is not the court's role to search out or make arguments for an unrepresented party. Woods v. Colvin, No. 3:14-CV-02020-CAN, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167859, at *6 (N.D. Ind. Dec. 16, 2015) (citing Small v. Endicott, 998 F.2d 411, 417 (7th Cir. 1993)); see also Herman v. Berryhill, No. 16 CV 50298, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69634, at *22 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 23, 2018) (“In her briefs, plaintiff has asked this Court to review the record and find that she is disabled, but it is not this Court's job to construct a party's argument for her, and this holds true even when that party is proceeding pro se.” (quotation marks and brackets omitted)).

         The Commissioner in his response noted that Pinkston failed to point to any specific error in the ALJ's decision. Pinkston did not reply.

         Because Pinkston has not alleged any specific error in the ALJ's decision, it would be appropriate to simply deny his challenge as unsupported. Nonetheless, liberally construing Pinkston's letter as arguing that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, the court will review the ALJ's decision for any apparent error.

         The ALJ appropriately considered whether Pinkston's impairments met a Listing, most relevantly Listing 12.15, which deals with “trauma- and stressor-related disorders.” There was substantial evidence that Pinkston's PTSD did not satisfy the “paragraph B” criteria:

         Extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning (see 12.00F):

1. Understand, remember, or apply information (see 12.00E1).
2. Interact with others (see 12.00E2).
3. Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace (see ...

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