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7th Circuit remands disability case over ALJ’s errant hypotheticals

February 11, 2019

A rejection of a man’s application for disability and supplemental security income was remanded after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found an administrative law judge’s hypothetical question ignored one of the man’s most significant deficits.

Ronnie Winsted Jr. applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income at age 42. He claimed degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, mild carpal tunnel syndrome, cavus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and anxiety.

After the Social Security Administration denied Winsted’s application, an administrative law judge similarly denied his claim, finding that although Winsted had moderate difficulty with social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace because of his mental‐health issues, those severe impairments did not meet a listing for presumptive disability.

The ALJ presented a hypothetical question to a vocational expert asking whether an individual of the same age, education and work experience of Winsted would be capable of performing light work with certain limitations, “simple, routine, repetitive tasks with few workplace changes, no team work, and no interaction with the public.” The expert determined such a person could work as a bench assembler, electronics worker, or production assembler.

Thus, the ALJ found Winsted had the requisite residual functional capacity to perform such tasks, and subsequently denied his application. Winsted appealed to the SSA’s Appeals Council, which denied review. He then sought judicial review, and the parties agreed to have a magistrate judge adjudicate the case, who ultimately upheld the ALJ’s decision.Among other things, Winsted appealed that neither the ALJ’s residual functional capacity determination nor his first hypothetical question properly accounted for the finding that Winsted had “moderate” difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace. Winsted further contended it failed to incorporate all his limitations supported by the medical record. The 7th Circuit agreed in Ronnie L. Winsted, Jr. v. Nancy A. Berryhill, 18‐2228.

“Again and again, we have said that when an ALJ finds there are documented limitations of concentration, persistence, and pace, the hypothetical question presented to the VE must account for these limitations,” Circuit Judge Michael Brennan wrote for the panel. He further noted that the ALJ disregarded testimony from the VE about a person with such limitations in his subsequent hypotheticals.

“The ALJ asked two additional hypothetical questions of the VE about an individual who would either be off task 20% of the workday or would have two unscheduled absences per month — presumably assuming someone with ‘moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace,’” Brennan wrote. “The VE responded that neither individual could sustain employment. But these responses are not reflected in the ALJ’s decision, which means it cannot stand.”

Therefore, the 7th Circuit Court reversed and remanded the case to the Social Security Administration.

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