United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
July 22, 2004.
MICHELLE WILSON Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: SAMUEL DER-YEGHIAYAN, District Judge
This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Michelle Wilson's
("Wilson") motion for summary judgment and Defendant Commissioner
of Social Security Jo Anne B. Barnhart's ("SSA") cross-motion for
summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, we deny both
motions and remand this case to the appropriate Administrative
Law Judge ("ALJ") for proceedings in accordance with this
Wilson has filed this action for review of the decisions of an
ALJ ("ALJ") and subsequent Appeals Council which upheld the
Social Security Agency's denial of Wilson's claim for
Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI") based on an alleged disability. Specifically, Ms. Wilson alleges that her
disability "is a result of episodic and exertion-related asthma
attacks" which are precipitated by such irritants as dust, air
conditioning, perfumes, fumes, snow, extremes of temperature,
pollen, plants, and cooking smoke. (Plaintiff's statement of
facts, p. 2) Wilson also claims that she cannot stand up for
long, gets short of breath even when sitting, and must use
inhalers multiple times in a day as well as a nebulizer for a
period of fifteen to twenty minutes four to six times a day.
(Plaintiff's statement of facts, p. 2-3) The record indicates
that Wilson was twenty-six years of age when she filed her
application for SSI, (Tr. 87) having an eleventh grade education
and a brief work history which includes employment as a cook and
laundry worker. (Tr. 99, 104) Wilson's treating physician
testified, at her administrative hearing, that Wilson was indeed
unable to work, as she suffered from recurrent attacks and even
mild exertion could cause her to experience difficulty breathing.
(Tr. 280) The ALJ, however, rejected this testimony upon her
finding that the physician was presumably unaware of exacerbating
factors in Wilson's home and under Wilson's control, such as the
presence of second-hand cigarette smoke, which Wilson could have
remedied but did not. Furthermore, based upon the testimony of
the vocational expert ("VE"), there was a significant number of
jobs which Wilson could hold. After an adverse finding by the
ALJ, Wilson brought this action. LEGAL STANDARD
A reviewing court will uphold an ALJ's decision if it is
supported by "substantial evidence" in the record and the ALJ
applied the correct legal standards. Clifford v. Apfel,
227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). "Substantial evidence" is defined
as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion." Dixon v. Massanari,
270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). When determining if substantial
evidence exists, the court must review the record as a whole but
is not allowed to substitute its judgment for the ALJ's by
"reconsidering facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in
evidence, or deciding questions of credibility." Williams v.
Apfel, 179 F.3d 1066, 1071-72 (7th Cir. 1999). Deference should
be given to an ALJ's determinations relating to credibility and
should be reversed only if the determinations are "patently
wrong." Powers v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 431, 435 (7th Cir. 2000)
(quoting Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178, 181 (7th Cir. 1990)).
By contrast, the ALJ's legal conclusions are reviewed de novo.
Aidinovski v. Apfel, 27 F. Supp.2d 1097, 1101 (N.D. Ill. 1998).
The ALJ must provide some explanation that would allow the
parties to understand his reasoning for his decision. See
Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872 (stating that an ALJ "must build an
accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his
conclusion."). Further, in reviewing the decision, the court must
confine its review to the explanation and reasoning given by the
ALJ. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 941 (7th Cir. 2002). DISCUSSION
The SSA employs a five-step process to evaluate applicants for
federal disability benefits. First, if an applicant is engaged in
substantial gainful employment, that applicant does not qualify
for disability insurance. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4). Second, if the applicant does not have a
sufficiently severe physical or mental impairment, the SSA will
deny disability insurance. Id. Third, if the applicant's
impairment or combination of impairments satisfies or is
medically equivalent to one of a series of enumerated disability
"listings," the SSA will find that the applicant is disabled.
Id. Fourth, the SSA calculates the applicant's "residual
functional capacity" ("RFC") with the impairment, and if the SSA
finds that the applicant can still perform the same relevant work
after the impairment as before, the SSA will deny benefits. Id.
Finally, using the same RFC along with the applicant's age,
education, and work experience, the SSA determines whether the
applicant can adjust to other work, in which case the SSA will
deny disability insurance. Id.
This process is structured so that if an applicant satisfies
steps one through three, the inquiry ends and the SSA finds the
applicant disabled. Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th
Cir. 1995). However, if the applicant satisfies the first two
steps but does not satisfy the third, the inquiry proceeds to the
fourth and, possibly, fifth steps. Id.
In the instant case, the ALJ ruled against Wilson at steps
three and five, finding that the severity of Wilson's claimed impairment did not
meet or equal a listed impairment, and that Wilson was able to
perform many available jobs despite her alleged handicaps.
The issue before us is whether the ALJ's finding that Wilson
was therefore not disabled was supported by substantial evidence
in the record. With respect to the degree of specificity
required, it is well established in this circuit that "the ALJ's
decision must be based upon consideration of all the relevant
evidence," and "the ALJ must articulate at some minimal level his
analysis of the evidence." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333
(7th Cir. 1994); Ray v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 998, 1002 (7th
Cir. 1988); Orlando v. Heckler, 776 F.2d 209, 213 (7th Cir.
Wilson charges that the ALJ has mis-characterized and ignored
evidence, and that her decision is unsupported by any evidence,
"substantial or other wise. [sic]" (P's Mot p. 2). Wilson
contests the ALJ's finding that her impairment was not
sufficiently severe so as to meet or equal a listed impairment.
Second, Wilson contests the ALJ's outright rejection of the
testimony of Wilson's treating physician. Third, and finally,
Wilson challenges the ALJ's "Step five" finding that Wilson could
hold many jobs, based on the testimony of the VE.
II. Severity Of The Impairment
The ALJ's findings with respect to "severity" of Wilson's
impairment hinge largely on the claimant's testimony as to his or
her degree of suffering. Thus, the issue of severity and credibility are inextricably linked. In
essence, the ALJ's finding in this case was that Wilson's
condition is a significant handicap, but not so severe that she
is unable to hold a job as a "disabled" person under the Social
Security Act. The ALJ's finding in this regard relies heavily on
her credibility finding with respect to Wilson. When reviewing a
denial of benefits, an ALJ's determination of credibility "is
afforded special deference because the ALJ is in the best
position to see and hear the witness and determine credibility."
Shramek v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 809, 811 (7th Cir. 2000) (citing
Powers v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 431, 435 (7th Cir. 2000)). Thus,
if such a determination is supported by the record and not
"patently wrong," it will not be disturbed by a reviewing court.
Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 308 (7th Cir. 1995); Pope v.
Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993). Also, "an ALJ
may not select and discuss only that evidence that favors his
ultimate conclusion, but must articulate, at some minimum level,
his analysis of the evidence to allow the appellate court to
trace the path of his reasoning." Diaz, 55 F.3d at 308.
We cannot find that the ALJ's credibility findings were
patently wrong. The ALJ explained that Wilson admitted to being
able to engage in various physical activities. Wilson stated that
she performs some household chores, including cleaning, laundry,
and grocery shopping. Wilson states that she walked her children
to school and volunteers at her children's school. Wilson also
states that she goes to movies, eats out, and visits with family
and friends. The ALJ indicated that Wilson also made inconsistent
statements concerning the limitation of her alleged disability. Such a conclusion is supported by the record. While, the ALJ
noted that Wilson exacerbated her condition by inhaling second
hand smoke and having a cat as a pet, the ALJ did not rely on
such matters in forming her opinion. Therefore, we do not find
that the ALJ erred in regards to the severity or credibility
III. Rejection Of Dr. DeLeon's Testimony
The testimony of a physician "regarding the nature and severity
of an impairment will be given controlling weight if it is
well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other
substantial evidence in the case." (emphasis added) Shramek v.
Apfel, 226 F.3d 809, 814 (7th Cir. 2000);
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). Additionally, a statement by a medical source
that a claimant is "disabled" or "unable to work" does not
require a finding of disability, and such a statement is not
afforded any "special significance." 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(1)
and (3). In the instant action SSA claims the ALJ rejected the
opinion of Dr. DeLeon, Wilson's treating physician, because
"there was no indication that Dr. DeLeon was aware of the extent
to which Plaintiff's daily activities and living situation
suggested her symptomology was not as severe as she
claimed. . . ." (D Mot, p. 11). Even the SSA concedes that the
ALJ's rejection was based, at least in part, not on any actual
inconsistency with other evidence, but rather, was based on the
ALJ's speculation that the doctor might have been unaware of
something relevant. (D Mot 11). We find that the ALJ erred in disregarding Dr. DeLeon's testimony, based upon the ALJ's own
speculation. An ALJ is required "to develop a full and fair
record." Howell v. Sullivan, 950 F.2d 343, 348-49 (7th Cir.
1991). Therefore, if the ALJ decides to discount Dr. DeLeon's
opinion because Dr. DeLeon did not fully comprehend Wilson's
background, the ALJ should seek to develop the record first to
see if the evidence supports such a conclusion.
IV. Jobs Wilson Could Hold and Finding Of Non-Disability
In a case such as this, the claimant bears the burden of
demonstrating his or her disability through the first four steps
of the aforementioned analysis, and upon the satisfaction of step
four, the burden shifts to the SSA to establish "that the
claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy."
Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995); Pope,
998 F.3d at 477; Lee v. Sullivan, 988 F.2d 789, 792 (7th
Cir. 1992). As to the hypothetical questions, it is required that
they "must fully set forth the claimant's impairments to the
extent that they are supported by the medical evidence in the
record." Herron, 19 F.3d at 337; Cass v. Shalala, 8 F.3d 552,
556 (7th Cir. 1993); Ehrhart v. Secretary of Heath and Human
Services, 969 F.2d 534, 540 (7th Cir. 1992).
SSA argues generally that its burden has been met, in that the
hypothetical questions posed to the VE by the ALJ "included the
limitations the ALJ found credibly supported by the record as a
whole." (Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, p. 12). The hypothetical questions were not
comprehensive with respect to the irritants which may trigger
exacerbations of her condition. (P's Mot, p. 10-11). Also, the
hypothetical questions did not address claimant's difficulties
even with "mild exertion," which her physician testified caused
her shortness of breath, and which would almost certainly be
required in most jobs. Similarly, Wilson's stated need for
multiple daily nebulizer treatments was not considered. In
conclusion, in order for us to uphold the ALJ's finding in this
matter, the hypothetical questions posed to the VE must include
consideration of all limitations unless the record demonstrates
that the omitted limitations are based upon incredible claims.
Thus, they must be either included in the hypothetical questions
or the ALJ must provide a more sufficient explanation for her
finding that they are incredible claims.
Based on the foregoing analysis, we deny the motions for
summary judgment and remand this case to the ALJ for proceedings
in accordance with this opinion.
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