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Blake R. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 15, 2019

Blake R., Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge

         Blake R. challenges the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) denial of his claim for disability benefits. Blake and the Commissioner have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 16; Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 20. Blake argues that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed a because it is not supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons stated below, Blake's motion is granted, the Commissioner's motion is denied, and this matter is remanded to the SSA for further proceedings.

         I. Background and Procedural History

          Blake R. suffers from several severe mental-health impairments. These impairments include: Asperger's syndrome/Autism Spectrum Disorder; oppositional defiant disorder; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”); depressive disorder not otherwise specified; and anxiety disorder. After fourth grade, Blake attended special education courses and had an individual education plan (“IEP”) until he graduated from high school in 2014. Blake also required the one-on-one assistance of a paraeducator throughout the school day to ensure that he completed his work and avoided disrupting others. Throughout his time in school and in the months after he graduated, Blake struggled with maintaining personal hygiene and appropriate self-care. Blake alleges that he became unable to work as a result of his mental impairments on June 1, 2014, shortly after he turned 18 years old. Given his young age, Blake does not have a relevant work history.

         When Blake applied for disability benefits in June of 2014, his claim was denied upon initial review. He sought reconsideration of that decision, and the SSA denied his claim again. Mr. R then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and on May 9, 2016, an ALJ conducted a hearing in Minneapolis. She heard testimony from Blake, Dr. Michael Lace (a medical expert who reviewed Blake's medical records), and William E. Villa (a vocational expert). Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Blake's claim, and he sought review from the Social Security Appeals Council. When the Appeals Council denied Blake's request for further consideration, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This lawsuit followed.

         II. Summary of the ALJ Decision

          The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation mandated by the SSA's regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The ALJ found that Blake has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of his disability and also concluded that he suffers from the severe mental impairments listed above. The ALJ next determined that Blake does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         As required by the regulations, the ALJ then determined Blake's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), a shorthand for the ALJ's determination of the most a claimant can do in a full-time job in light of all of his severe and non-severe impairments. The ALJ found that Blake has the following RFC:

[Blake R.] has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: routine, repetitive, 3-to-4 step work setting and defined as repetitive short-cycle type work as set forth in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and its companion, very brief, very superficial, and very infrequent contact with coworkers, supervisors and the public further defined as tasks that would not require collaboration or teamwork with coworkers for performance and would not require direct interaction with the public for performance of the tasks, and in terms of tasks that would involve a lower than average pace, no high-speed pace, strict production rate pace or production quotas, and no work on an assembly line or in a scenario such as needing to take immediate action either in response to what has been done before or what needs to be done next.

Admin. R. (“R”) 17-18, ECF No. 11.

         In concluding that Blake can work, the ALJ acknowledged evidence concerning Blake's issues with self-care and poor hygiene. She found that Blake “has some difficulty managing personal care and does not consistently shower, brush his teeth, or wash his hair.” R. 15 (discussing activities of daily living at step two of the sequential evaluation). Further, the ALJ acknowledged that there are “numerous references” to Blake's struggles with poor hygiene, but found other records indicate that Blake “is able to maintain personal hygiene at times.” R. 15. The ALJ noted that Blake testified he “cannot always feel when he has to go to the bathroom and will dirty his pants.” R. 18. The ALJ also observed that issues with personal hygiene were present during his schooling and reflected in his IEP. R. 19. However, she found that Blake's problems with personal hygiene and care stemmed from a “motivational component.” The ALJ based this conclusion on records showing that Blake played video games obsessively, R. 24, and other records indicating that “in late 2015 [Blake] reported showering at a more acceptable frequency and was not indicated to present with foul-smelling odor, with washing his face consistently as well, ” R. 25.

         The ALJ also considered the evaluations of several mental-health professionals. One such assessment was provided by a psychologist, Amy Swingle, Psy.D, L.P., who interviewed Blake and his mother in October of 2015 following a referral from Blake's therapist. R. 25-27, 587-605. Based on the interview, her review of Blake's medical records, and an array of testing, Dr. Swingle provided several recommendations, including the following:

7) Blake should follow the following recommendations for ADHD in the home environment:
a. Organize materials and work space, have large projects broken down into smaller segments, and allow for breaks. Take regular breaks to refresh attention.
b. Work in a quiet distraction-free ...

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