United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, E.D
August 24, 1984
LAURA JACKSON, PLAINTIFF,
MARGARET M. HECKLER, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shadur, District Judge.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Laura Jackson ("Jackson") seeks judicial review of a final decision of
the Secretary of Health and Human Services ("Secretary") denying Jackson
a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Jackson's claim
under Social Security Act ("Act") §§ 216(i) and 223,
42 U.S.C. § 416(i) and 423, was denied by ALJ Charles Walsh ("ALJ
Walsh" or simply the "ALJ") after an April 19, 1983 hearing. Jackson then
exhausted her administrative remedies (a process that resulted in the
ALJ's decision becoming Secretary's) and brought this action against
Secretary under Act § 205(g), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
As is customary in these cases, the parties have filed cross-motions
for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. ("Rule") 56. In this case the
ALJ's decision (which became Secretary's) rested on his finding Jackson
could return to her past relevant work if it were available. Jackson
contends the ALJ's findings are not supported by "substantial evidence"
because record evidence does not support the propositions that:
1. Jackson's disabilities are not "severe."
2. Jackson can return to her past work as a sewing
For the reasons stated in this memorandum opinion and order, Secretary's
motion is granted and Jackson's is denied.
Jackson was 57 years old at the date of the ALJ hearing and has an
eleventh grade education. Until she was laid off in 1980 she worked for a
number of years as a sewing machine operator for Brown's Industrial
Uniforms, Inc. Her work required her to bend and reach, as well as to do
close work with her hands, but little or no standing was required. She
claims she has been disabled since April 30, 1981 with swelling of her
legs, bursitis, osteoarthritis and adult-onset diabetes mellitus. In
addition to her testimony, the record contains four medical opinions:
1. On November 14, 1981 Dr. Phillip Foley reported
after a single examination (R. 93) Jackson suffers
from "some early degenerative osteoarthritis of the
right knee" and "Low grade bursitis of the right
shoulder." He concluded Jackson could do "light work
with occasional climbing, frequent bending, stooping
and operating foot controls" and added, "Handling
and fingering are all right."
2. On December 19, 1981 Dr. Virgilio Jonson
dictated a discharge summary covering Jackson's
just-concluded six-day stay at Roseland Community
Hospital ("Roseland") (R. 94-95). He had diagnosed
Jackson's diabetic condition for the first time. In
addition he found Jackson had "osteoarthritis of the
cervical and lumbar spine" and "generalized edema,"
or fluid buildup in the tissues, of unknown source.
However she was discharged "with no limitation of
her activity" after a diabetic diet and
anti-swelling drugs improved her condition
3. On March 24, 1982 Dr. Mamie Long filed a report
after a single examination of Jackson (R. 103-05).
She found evidence of "Degenerative joint disease
changes of the right shoulder and right knee with
complaints of arthralgias in these areas" and "Adult
onset diabetes mellitus." She also reported that by
Jackson's own account she had experienced
"congestive heart failure compensated at this
time."*fn1 Dr. Long really made no findings bearing
ultimate issues such as whether Jackson could do
either her past work or work-related activities in
4. On February 16, 1983 Dr. Pascual Sales reported
treating Jackson at Roseland for a week in early
1983 (R. 118-23). He found pain and tenderness of
the stomach and right flank ("acute abdomen
secondary to acute pyelonephritis, right"), which
improved on treatment with antibiotics and a soft
low sodium diet. Jackson was discharged with "no
restriction of her ambulation." Dr. Sales submitted
a letter May 14, 1983 (R. 143), which read in its
Ms. Laura Jackson has been under medical care for
recurrent swelling and edema to the both [sic]
lower extremeties [sic] more so to her right leg.
She also [sic] under medical care for;
1. Hypertension 130-180/90-110
2. Osteoarthritis to her neck and back.
3. Pyelonephritis — treated.
After reciting Jackson's own testimony and a good part of the medical
evidence in summary form, ALJ Walsh found Jackson not disabled,
evaluating the evidence in a single paragraph (R. 13):
The Administrative Law Judge has carefully evaluated
the entire record and finds that the claimant is not
engaging in substantial gainful activity. The claimant
does have some impairments, however, they are not so
severe, singly or in combination, that they preclude
all forms of substantial gainful work activity. The
claimant's prior job as a sewing machine operator was
considered light to sedentary work (basically all
sitting). Clinical findings does [sic] not reveal any
severe impairments. The evidence indicates that if the
claimant eats the right foods and stays on her 1800
diabetic diet, and takes her medications as
prescribed, she would not have dizziness. Her
arthritis is not of disabling severity. The claimant
does not allege constant disabling pain. She can
ambulate without an assistive device. The
Administrative Law Judge concludes that the claimant
has the residual functional capacity to do her past
relevant work as a sewing machine operator,
therefore, it must be found that the claimant is not
disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.
This action ensued.
"Severity" of Jackson's Impairments
On occasion Secretary denies benefits on the ground a claimant's
impairment is not "severe," See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).*fn2
"Severity" is a de minimis requirement and has clearly been fulfilled
here. It is nothing more than an administrative convenience and should be
employed "only when a claim is so groundless that any analysis of the
claimant's work experience or residual functional capacity would be a
waste of time." McCullough v. Heckler, 583 F. Supp. 934, 937 (N.D.Ill.
Here however Secretary did not use the "severity" requirement to deny
benefits. It is true ALJ Walsh stated (R. 13):
The claimant does have some impairments, however, they
are not so severe, singly or in combination, that they
preclude all forms of substantial gainful work
activity. . . . Clinical findings does [sic] not
reveal any severe impairments.
But he then proceeded to the next step of Secretary's sequential
evaluation process, determining whether Jackson could return to her past
Apparently ALJ Walsh mistakenly viewed the "severity"
requirement as providing that only if Jackson's
impairments prevented her from performing basic work activities would
those impairments be considered "severe," so that Jackson therefore would
be considered "disabled."
That however is a semantic and not a substantive error. ALJ Walsh's
mistake was harmless because he in fact went on to ascertain whether
Jackson could perform her past relevant work. That is precisely what he
would have done if he had applied the "severity" requirement correctly,
concluding in Jackson's favor that her impairments were severe. Thus the
ALJ's misunderstanding of the terminology did not "`short-circuit' the
disability determination process." McCullough, 583 F. Supp. at 939
(quoting Magistrate Lefkow).
Jackson's Ability To Do Past Work
Secretary's conclusion that Jackson could return to her past work if it
were available, if supported by "substantial evidence," mandates a
finding Jackson is not disabled.*fn4 Substantial evidence "means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91
S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971), quoting from Consolidated Edison
Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 216, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938).
That standard must be applied "considering the record as a whole." Strunk
v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 1357, 1359 (7th Cir. 1984).
Jackson claims the ALJ did not articulate his reasons for decision "in
a manner sufficient to permit an informed review." Garfield v.
Schweiker, 732 F.2d 605, 610 (7th Cir. 1984), quoting from Holndoner v.
Schweiker, 542 F. Supp. 739, 742 (N.D.Ill. 1982). While it is true ALJ
Walsh was rather summary in his evaluation of the evidence, the record
does not reveal any real support for the position Jackson was in fact
disabled. That is in sharp contrast to Garfield, 732 F.2d at 610, which
stated the court "should not encounter surprises of this magnitude"
unfavorable to Secretary when reviewing the record, and to Zblewski v.
Schweiker, 732 F.2d 75, 79 (7th Cir. 1984), which held "a minimal level
of articulation of the ALJ's assessment of the evidence is required in
cases in which considerable evidence is presented to counter the agency's
position." Without any substantial evidence of disability that must be
rejected, ALJ Walsh's summary treatment is acceptable.
More specifically, Jackson invokes Strittmatter v. Schweiker,
729 F.2d 507 (7th Cir. 1984) to urge ALJ Walsh has not given an adequate
explanation of his finding Jackson can return to her past work. Because
ALJ Walsh did not go into any detail in discussing the demands of
Jackson's past work, Jackson argues a remand is necessary because, as in
Strittmatter, 729 F.2d at 509, it cannot be determined "whether he did
ascertain the demands of [her] former work and compared them with her
ALJ Walsh's reasoning here however was not faulty, as was the ALJ's in
Strittmatter. There the ALJ erroneously concluded the claimant could
return to her past work because (1) her past work was sedentary in nature
and (2) she could do some sedentary work. As the court pointed out (id.
at 509), that reasoning relies on a logical fallacy because "sedentary
work is not homogenous with respect to strenuousness."*fn5 Here ALJ
Walsh did engage in the first step of the analysis found wanting in
Strittmatter when he found (R. 13) Jackson's past work "was considered
light to sedentary work." But the ALJ did not complete the fallacy by
concluding on the basis of Jackson's perceived ability to do only some
light work that she could return to her past work. Instead he
specifically concluded she could still work as a sewing machine operator
after reviewing the
non-disabling nature of her several impairments. Certainly Strittmatter
did not outlaw all descriptions of claimants' past work as "light" or
Moreover the ALJ's statements about Jackson's past work as a sewing
machine operator and her ability to perform it are adequately supported
by the record. Jackson's own description of her past work (R. 70) reveals
it is light or sedentary work. She wrote "I had to pick up the jacket and
put them [sic] on the machine, worked like peace [sic] work. They come in
like in Big Basket [sic]." She reported she sat eight hours a day but was
bending and reaching constantly. Describing her lifting and carrying, she
said she "lifted it [sic] all day but did not have to carry it." That
description provides substantial support for the conclusion Jackson's
past work was light or sedentary in nature.
ALJ Walsh's finding Jackson could return to her past work also is
supported by substantial evidence. At worst this case could have gone
either way on the facts. All Jackson's testimony was consistent with the
hypothesis she was not disabled, or at least would not be disabled if she
followed her diabetic diet. No physician in the record actually expressed
a view Jackson could not perform the type of activities her past work
involved.*fn7 Both treating physicians reported no serious impairments
remained upon discharge from either of her two hospital stays. In short,
the evidence favorable to Secretary does not suffer from any of the
weaknesses found fatal to the government's position in Carver v. Harris,
634 F.2d 363, 364 (7th Cir. 1980) (per curiam) or Allen v. Weinberger,
552 F.2d 781, 786 (7th Cir. 1977). Accordingly reversal or even remand is
This Court (like so many dealing with the recent flood of totally
unjustified terminations or denials of disability benefits) has often
been sharply critical of Secretary's efforts in this area. All too often
they are strongly redolent of being "result-oriented rather than
justice-oriented" (Jones v. Heckler, 583 F. Supp. 1250, 1253 (N.D.Ill.
1984)). But that does not entitle a claimant to recover when an ALJ (as
here) has made a conscientious review of all the evidence and has reached
a conclusion supported by the requisite "substantial evidence."
There is no genuine issue of material fact, and Secretary is entitled
to a judgment as a matter of law. Secretary's Rule 56 motion is granted,
Jackson's is denied, and this action is dismissed.