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7th Circuit remands disability case on ALJ’s improper assessment

February 12, 2019

A decision denying a man’s application for disability and supplemental security income was remanded after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found an administrative law judge erroneously discredited him and improperly assessed his functional abilities.

Danny Ray applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in 2013. Ray lives with diabetes, hypertension, obesity, kidney disease, degenerative disc disease, anxiety, and depression. He also has limited intellect with a learning disorder, only having completed eight grades of special education, and he struggles to read and write.

Ray previously worked a bus monitor for children with special needs, lifting disabled children into their seats on the bus, strapping down wheelchairs, and monitoring the children’s behavior. He ultimately quit because it was too painful for his hands, feet, and hips.

After the Social Security Administration denied Ray’s application, an administrative law judge reviewed his claims. Despite finding that Ray had several severe impairments, the ALJ concluded that he had the residual functional capacity to perform light work and to stand or walk for six hours.

She also found him able to “understand, remember, and carry out semiskilled tasks” and “attend to tasks for a sufficient period in order to complete tasks.” Regarding his limitations, the ALJ found Ray only “partially credible,” largely based on the notion that, if his symptoms were as severe as alleged, his daily activities would be more restricted, and he would be more compliant with his prescribed treatments.

A vocational expert determined that Ray could work as a school bus monitor as performed in the national economy, not as he had previously performed it. When asked of the required language level for that position, the expert said Ray must have the ability to “write compound and complex sentences, using cursive style, proper end punctuation, and employing adjectives and adverbs.”

Ray argued that his previous bus monitor position was composite job, but the ALJ dismissed his argument as “unpersuasive and unsupported” and concluded that Ray was not disabled and could be a bus monitor as that job is generally performed. She did not discuss the undisputed language-development requirements for the position.

However, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the ALJ’s decision in Danny Ray v. Nancy Berryhill, 18-2229, finding she improperly assessed Ray’s hip and back pain, supporting her determination with “irrelevant records” from previous treatment Ray received for a staph infection. The court found no connection was made between her analysis of his pain and restricted mobility, and that she further improperly emphasized Ray’s lack of follow up on a recommended spine evaluation and his difficulty with medication compliance by simply assuming he did not show up because his symptoms were not serious.

The 7th Circuit Court also found the ALJ overemphasized Ray’s daily living activities, failing to note that he performed them while sitting.

“…[I]t shows that the sum of Ray’s daily routine involves showering while seated, fixing simple meals, and using the dishwasher. In between these activities, he sits and watches television. He could not walk even two hours home from the hospital, a stark contrast to the ALJ’s finding that he can stand or walk six hours every day,” the per curium opinion says. “Ray’s minimal daily activities do not support the ALJ’s finding that he exaggerated his symptoms, nor do they support the ultimate (residual function capacity determination).”

The panel also agreed with Ray that the ALJ made technical errors that led to the unsupportable conclusion that he could perform his past relevant work as a bus monitor as that position exists in the national economy. The court found she based the RFC on a flawed credibility finding and discredited two agency expert opinions finding Ray to have severe mental impairment.

“Therefore, the ALJ will have to revisit her assessment of Ray’s mental impairments in any case. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment and remand to the district court with instructions to remand the case to the agency for further proceedings,” the court concluded. 

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