The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned the denial of Social Security disability benefits for an honorably discharged female member of the U.S. Coast Guard who was raped by a fellow service member, finding the administrative law judge’s determination was not supported by the substantial evidence.
Erica Mandrell served in the U.S. Coast Guard from November 2005 to January 2009 and left with an honorable discharge. During her service, she was raped by a fellow service member and developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mandrell was diagnosed with PTSD along with anxiety and depressive disorders. In addition, she reported having difficulty leaving her house and becoming quite anxious in the presence of men or certain odors. Also, she slept with a gun on her nightstand and kept her door bolted.
Mandrell’s record of medications is lengthy, and she also self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana. Moreover, she reported she was still haunted by the face of the rapist. As she was testifying before an administrative law judge, she had to take a break and the proceedings were paused because she felt a panic attack coming on.
The ALJ found that while Mandrell had severe mental impairments, her condition did not support “broad, pervasive disabling” limitations on her ability to work. He accepted the vocational expert’s analysis that she could perform some jobs at a medium exertional level, including linen room attendant, hospital housekeeper and automobile detailer.
Thus, the ALJ denied her application for benefits, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana affirmed.
Before the 7th Circuit, Mandrell argued the ALJ overstepped his bounds by making medical judgments for which he was unqualified. The panel agreed, noting the ALJ inexplicably disregarded substantial portions of the medical testimony, and some of the explanations he did offer strayed beyond his expertise and into the “forbidden territory” of playing doctor.
Also, the 7th Circuit pointed to concerns about the ALJ’s reliance on the analysis of the jobs Mandrell could perform.
“The vocational expert provided testimony about the pool of jobs that would be available to a person with limitations specified in the ALJ’s hypotheticals, but the testimony was only as good as the hypotheticals — and they failed to capture the full picture,” Judge Diane Wood wrote in Erica A. Mandrell v. Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commission of Social Security, 21-1121. “None of the ALJ’s hypotheticals envisioned a workplace free of men, undoubtedly because it is quite unlikely that excluding men from a workplace is an option, given the employment discrimination laws. Nor did the hypotheticals grapple with some of the medical evidence that Mandrell put in the record and insists should have been considered.”
Looking further, the 7th Circuit found the administrative law judge failed to connect the residual functional capacity he found with the evidence in the record. The appellate panel was convinced the ALJ did not “adequately connect the dots” between the residual functional capacity he found and the deficits he also acknowledged.
“For example, we do not see how the ALJ’s RFC adequately captures what Mandrell could — and more to the point, could not — do in light of her severe PTSD and other psychological conditions. He did not explain how a person with her problems in concentration, persistence, and pace could perform at the level described in his RFC,” Wood wrote, noting the record shows she could not concentrate because of the paralyzing effect of the memory of the rape, including the panic attack during her testimony.
“The fact that she had some good days and some bad days, as we have noted in other cases, in no way undermines her showing of disability. On some days she encounters reminders of her trauma, and on other days she is more fortunate. The ALJ did not adequately reconcile this evidence with his ultimate conclusion.”
The case was remanded to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings.