C. The ALJ's Findings
In his decision, the ALJ cited Plaintiff's testimony concerning her past work as a general office worker, loan processor, loan officer and waitress, and the reasons that she left those jobs. He noted that, with the exception of the waitressing job--which he found to be an unsuccessful work attempt--her past jobs were essentially sit-down jobs, requiring little lifting. The ALJ then noted Plaintiff's testimony regarding her mood swings, decreased concentration and slow thinking and that she was not taking any medications for the mood swings. (R. at 24-25.)
Next, the ALJ cited all of the medical evidence in the record, including the opinions of all examining and non-examining physicians relating to her impairments--both objective and subjective--and her ability to perform work-related functions. He noted that, when Dr. Dang examined Plaintiff after the hearing, he noted that her mood and affect were appropriate. (R. at 25-27.)
In analyzing the cited medical records, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has a diagnosis of a demyelinating disease, which is thought to be MS, and that she has "mild situational depression." He felt that these impairments were severe, in that they impose more than a minimal effect on her ability to function. However, he found that her impairments would not prevent her performance of her past work as a general office worker. In so finding, the ALJ discredited Plaintiff's testimony regarding the extent of her pain, mood swings, and depression to the extent that they would preclude her performance of her past work as a general office worker. The ALJ specifically noted, in this regard, that in June and November 1994, Plaintiff filled out forms regarding her daily activities in which she acknowledged that she maintained a home, reads as a hobby, took her young son out and had lunch with friends. She also reported driving a car, cooking, cleaning, dusting, washing laundry, shopping for groceries, dining out with her husband and watching movies at home. The ALJ found that the performance of such activities was inconsistent with Plaintiff's assertions that she could no longer perform her prior work. (R. at 28-29.)
With regard to Plaintiff's testimony concerning her mood swings and depression, the ALJ noted that she was not taking any medication for such problems, and that she had indicated that her "slow thinking" was due to the pain medication she was taking. He noted further that, when Plaintiff was given her internal medicine examination on August 30, 1994 by Dr. Epner, he noted that she did fairly well, except that she could remember only one out of three objects mentioned to her after five minutes. Moreover, when examined on June 6, 1995 by Dr. Dang, a neurologist, she was alert and oriented and her speech was normal. Finally, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff has never been treated for a mental disorder. (R. at 31-32.)
Standard of Review
In reviewing the Commissioner's (here the ALJ's) decision, the court may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). Rather, the court must accept findings of fact that are supported by "substantial evidence," 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g)(1988), where substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Herron 19 F.3d at 333 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842, 91 S. Ct. 1420 (1971)). The ALJ must consider all relevant evidence and may not select and discuss only that evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion. Id. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, the responsibility for determining whether a claimant is disabled falls upon the Commissioner (or ALJ), not the courts. Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178, 181 (7th Cir. 1990). See also Stuckey v. Sullivan, 881 F.2d 506, 509 (7th Cir. 1989) (the ALJ has the authority to assess medical evidence and give greater weight to that which he finds more credible). The court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal criteria. Ehrhart v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 969 F.2d 534, 538 (7th Cir. 1992).
This does not mean that the Commissioner (or ALJ) is entitled to unlimited judicial deference, however. In addition to relying on substantial evidence, the ALJ must articulate his analysis at some minimal level and state his reasons for accepting or rejecting "entire lines of evidence," although he need not evaluate in writing every piece of evidence in the record. See Herron, 19 F.3d at 333; see also Young v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 957 F.2d 386, 393 (7th Cir. 1992) (ALJ must articulate his reason for rejecting evidence "within reasonable limits" if there is to be meaningful appellate review); Guercio v. Shalala, 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2526, No. 93 C 323, 1994 WL 66102, *9 (N.D. Ill. 1994) (ALJ need not spell out every step in his reasoning, provided he has given sufficient direction that the full course of his decision may be discerned), (citing Brown v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 342, 346 (7th Cir. 1988)).
The Social Security regulations prescribe a sequential five-part test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (1994). The ALJ must consider: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals any impairment listed in the regulations as being so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (1994); see also Young, 957 F.2d 386, 389. A finding of disability requires an affirmative answer at either step 3 or step 5. A negative answer at any step (other than step 3) precludes a finding of disability. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps 1-4, after which the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step 5. Id. Here, the ALJ's analysis concluded at step 4, when he found that Plaintiff is able to perform her past work.
Applying the standards set forth above to the facts of this case, the Court must conclude that the record with regard to Plaintiff's mental impairments is insufficient to support the ALJ's findings in that regard. Therefore, the Commissioner's final decision is not supported by substantial evidence.
At the outset, the Court notes the ALJ's careful recitation of and analysis of the evidence as it relates to Plaintiff's physical impairments, including her allegations of pain, and can find no fault with that analysis. However, having brought out, through his own questioning of Plaintiff, the possibility of the existence of mental impairments--especially in view of the fact that Plaintiff was represented by her husband, not an attorney
--it was incumbent upon the ALJ to complete the record in that regard. See Thompson v. Sullivan, 933 F.2d 581, 585 (7th Cir. 1991); Sears v. Bowen, 840 F.2d 394, 402 (7th Cir. 1988). Indeed, the ALJ recognized his responsibility. After hearing Plaintiff's testimony regarding her multiple problems caused by MS, the ALJ stated as follows:
MS, however, can also cause psychological problems and that's well recognized...I'm required, in my job, to sit [here] and look at all the possibilities...particularly if I believe testimony [that] there's evidence to indicate some of the manifestations might include psychological...and that, I feel, is what the case is.