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Jablonski v. Astrue

November 5, 2010

RAYMOND JABLONSKI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Nan R. Nolan

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Raymond Jablonski filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423(d), 1381a. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

To recover DIB or SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act.*fn1 Keener v. Astrue, 2008 WL 687132, at *1 (S.D. Ill. 2008); York v. Massanari, 155 F. Supp. 2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001). A person is disabled if he or she is unable to perform "any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 20 C.F.R. § 416.905. In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the ALJ conducts a standard five-step inquiry:

1. Is the claimant presently unemployed?

2. Is the claimant's impairment severe?

3. Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations?

4. Is the claimant unable to perform his former occupation?

5. Is the claimant unable to perform any other work?

See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). "An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled." Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n. 2 (7th Cir. 1985). "The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner." Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on May 31, 2007, alleging he became disabled on November 16, 2004, due to rheumatoid arthritis in his knees and lower back. (R. at 110-13, 129-40.) The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 56-59, 78.)

On September 18, 2008, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 23-55.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Dr. Ashok Jilhewar, a medical expert ("ME") and Pamela Tucker, a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 45-55.)

The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on January 13, 2009. (R. at 12-22.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 16, 2004, his alleged onset date. (Id. at 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments consist of "status post left knee abrasion chondroplasty,*fn2 mild degenerative disc disease, cardiomyopathy,*fn3 chest pain, morbid obesity, right rotator cuff tendonitis, and depression." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn4 and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work. (R. at 16.) Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is limited to work that allows him the use of a cane to ambulate and does not require climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds. [Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. [Plaintiff] can frequently reach in all directions, including overhead with the right dominant upper extremity. Additionally [the ALJ] limited [Plaintiff] to unskilled work that is simple, routine and repetitive. (Id.) Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 20.) At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, his vocational factors and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including work as a sorter, bench worker and assembler. (Id. at 21-22.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 22.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 22, 2009 (id. at 1-4), and Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether Plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it "reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Id. The Court's task is "limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial "if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion." Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance." Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).

Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it "must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal citation and brackets omitted). The Court must critically review the ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ has built an "accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion." Young, 362 F.3d at 1002. Where the Commissioner's decision "lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

IV. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff raises several arguments in support of his request for a reversal and remand: (1) the ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's depression was not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ erred in giving greater weight to the opinion of the ME over the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; and (3) the ALJ erred in making the RFC determination without assessing the effect of Plaintiff's obesity on his other impairments. The Court addresses each in turn.

A. The ALJ's Determination of Plaintiff's Mental RFC

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's reasons for discounting the limiting effects of Plaintiff's depression were not legally sufficient. (Pl.'s Mot. 8.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that despite supporting medical evidence, the ALJ rejected his treating physician's opinion regarding the limiting effects of Plaintiff's depression.

1. Applicable Law

By rule, "in determining whether a claimant is entitled to Social Security disability benefits, special weight is accorded opinions of the claimant's treating physician." Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 825 (2003); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2) (The opinion of a treating source is entitled to controlling weight if the opinion "is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence."). "More weight is given to the opinion of treating physicians because of their greater familiarity with the claimant's conditions and circumstances." Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003). Similarly, an "ALJ can reject an examining physician's opinion only for reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record; a contradictory opinion of a non-examining physician does not, by itself, suffice." Id.

It is clear that an ALJ may not make an independent medical finding, substituting his own opinion of the medical evidence for that of the claimant's treating physician. Rohan v. Chater, 98 F.3d 966, 970-71 (7th Cir. 1996); Hofslien v. Barnhart, 439 F.3d 375, 376 (7th Cir. 2006) ("Obviously if [the treating physician's medical opinion] is well supported and there is no contradictory evidence, there is no basis on which the administrative law judge, who is not a physician, could refuse to accept it."). If conflicting medical evidence is present, however, it is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve the conflict. Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 979 (7th Cir. 1996) (ALJ must decide which doctor to believe). An ALJ should bear in mind that a treating physician typically has a better opportunity to judge a claimant's limitations than a nontreating physician. Id. at 979; Grindle v. Sullivan, 774 F. Supp. 1501, 1507-08 (N.D. Ill. 1991). Nevertheless, an ALJ may reject the opinion of a treating physician in favor of the opinion of a nontreating physician in some cases, particularly where the nontreating physician has special expertise that pertains to the case and where the issue is one of interpretation of records or results rather than one of judgment based on observations over a period of time. Micus v. Bowen, 979 F.2d 602, 608 (7th Cir. 1992) ("[I]t is up to the ALJ to decide which doctor to believe-the treating physician who has experience and knowledge of the case, but may be biased, or . . . the consulting physician, who may bring expertise and knowledge of similar cases-subject only to the ...


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