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Mark Daniels v. Michael J. Astrue


August 4, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox


Plaintiff Mark Daniels seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act.*fn1 Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure seeking a judgment reversing or remanding the Commissioner's final decision. The Commissioner opposes this motion and requests that we affirm his final decision. For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part [dkt. 18].

I. Procedural History

On April 20, 2007, plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging that he had been disabled since February 12, 2007.*fn2 That claim was denied on August 29, 2007.*fn3 Upon reconsideration, plaintiff's claim was again denied by notice dated February 25, 2008.*fn4 Thereafter, plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").*fn5

On July 1, 2009, an administrative video hearing was held before ALJ Mary Ann Poulose, with the plaintiff appearing in Orland Park, Illinois and the ALJ located in Chicago, Illinois.*fn6

Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable opinion dated July 27, 2009, finding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act.*fn7 On August 11, 2009, plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's determination with the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council.*fn8 On July 16, 2010, the Appeals Council denied the request for review, making the ALJ's July 27, 2009 decision the final administrative determination of the Commissioner.*fn9 On September 14, 2010, plaintiff filed this action.*fn10

II. Factual Background

Plaintiff was fifty years old at the time of the administrative hearing.*fn11 The highest level of education he attained was a General Equivalency Diploma.*fn12 Previous jobs included working in a warehouse, operating a forklift, assembling locomotive parts, and performing landscape work.*fn13 The record consists of medical documentation and the administration hearing transcript. We will summarize each.

A. Medical Documentation

The record contains medical records related to three conditions: injuries plaintiff suffered after falling off of a ladder, a lower back injury, and depression. There is also documentation from state agency reviewing doctors. We will discuss each category of evidence but only briefly summarize evidence related to the ladder accident, as it does not pertain to any of plaintiff's arguments before the Court.

1. Injuries as a result of ladder accident

On October 16, 2006, plaintiff sought medical care at Silver Cross Hospital and was first seen by Rafael R. Castro, M.D.*fn14 Dr. Castro's notes state that plaintiff fell a distance of approximately eight feet and landed on the left side of his head.*fn15 Plaintiff complained a severe headache, nausea, and vomiting.*fn16 Plaintiff also reported to Dr. Castro that he had episodes of confusion.*fn17 Dr. Castro's initial impressions included, "[p]ossible perforated left tympanum," and a possible skull fracture at the base of his skull.*fn18 Dr. Castro also noted a history of depression and colitis.*fn19 Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital.*fn20

Following admission into the hospital, plaintiff was examined by several doctors. These doctors noted hearing loss, a possible right temporal lobe contusion, and possible post-concussive sydrome.*fn21 Magnetic resonance imaging ("MRI") and Computerized axial tomography ("CAT scan") tests were completed.*fn22 Plaintiff was subsequently released from the hospital and underwent follow-up exams in October and December 2006. Ultimately, these follow-up exams revealed, "[e]ssentially stable brain appearance with no definite acute traumatic intracranial hemorrhage.."*fn23

2. Lower Back Injury

In February 2007, plaintiff sought treatment for an injury to his back that he suffered while lifting a heavy box.*fn24 Plaintiff complained of low back pain with burning and numbness.*fn25 It was noted on the medical records that plaintiff had undergone back surgery in 1988.*fn26 An MRI was completed and plaintiff was seen by Arti Chawla, M.D.*fn27 Dr. Chawla observed that plaintiff had difficulty bending over but was able to bend to approximately seventy-five degrees.*fn28 His gait was limited, but he was able to walk.*fn29 Dr. Chawla noted that the MRI revealed, "mild left-sided herniation of disc at the level of L4-L5 [with] foraminal narrowing."*fn30 Dr. Chawla wrote that plaintiff had severe pain over the left side of his back and radiation to the buttock.*fn31 Dr. Chawla stated that plaintiff should be off work and referred him to Joliet Pain Clinic.*fn32

On March 6, 2007, Aubrey Linder, PA-C performed a consultation at Joliet Pain Care Center.*fn33 The report states that plaintiff hurt his back in February 2007 and has had constant pain since that time.*fn34 Plaintiff rated that pain as a six out of ten.*fn35 Physician Assistant Linder determinated that plaintiff suffered from left L4-L5 disk herniation with left lower extremity radiculopathy.*fn36 She prescribed a short dose of steroids to help with the pain.*fn37 Plaintiff was also prescribed the muscle relaxer Zanaflex and instructed to stay off work.*fn38

On March 22, 2007, plaintiff followed up with Physician's Assistant Linder.*fn39 Plaintiff reported that he was 80% improved.*fn40 Physician's Assistant Linder recommended physical therapy to resolve the remaining pain.*fn41 Plaintiff was authorized to return to work as of April 2, 2007.*fn42

On June 4, 2007, plaintiff saw Joseph Hindo, M.D. Dr. Hindo noted that plaintiff had a herniated disc.*fn43 Dr. Hindo also stated that plaintiff, "has a lump in the upper quadrant."*fn44 Dr. Hindo referred plaintiff to neurological surgeon George DePhillips, M.D., S.C.*fn45

On July 2, 2007, Dr. DePhillips performed a neurosurgical consultation.*fn46 He wrote that plaintiff's MRI scan revealed "severe disc degeneration with disc space collapse and narrowing at the L5-S1 level."*fn47 Mild to moderate disc degeneration was also observed at the L3-L4 level and the L4-L5 level.*fn48 Dr. DePhillips noted that plaintiff had a "posterolateral non-instrumental fusion" completed in 1988.*fn49 Dr. DePhillips ordered x-rays to examine the fusion.*fn50 He also recommended a caudal epidural steroid injection.*fn51 Dr. DePhillips sought to follow-up with plaintiff in one week and recommended that he stay off work during that time.*fn52

Also on that date, Dr. DePhillips completed a "Disability Certificate" and indicated on that form that plaintiff was "totally incapacitated."*fn53 Dr. DePhillips stated that plaintiff should remain off work until further evaluation.*fn54 Subsequently, Dr. DePhillips noted that plaintiff was totally incapacitated seven additional times.*fn55

On September 26 and October 29, 2007, plaintiff followed up with Dr. DePhillips regarding his lower back pain.*fn56 On each occasion, Dr. DePhillips administered epidural steroid injections, but Dr. DePhillips noted that these injections provided only temporary relief.*fn57 Dr. DePhillips recommended physical therapy three times per week for three weeks and indicated that an independent medical evaluation was scheduled with Dr. John Shea.*fn58

Dr. Shea's notes state that an MRI from February 2007 showed subtle disc space herniation on the left at L4-L5 with foraminal narrowing.*fn59 Dr. Shea also noted decreased sensation and "give-way" weakness in the upper and lower extremities.*fn60 Dr. Shea believed that plaintiff could have suffered a back strain related to lifting the heavy box, as he had described.*fn61 However, Dr. Shea did not believe that surgery was necessary.*fn62 Dr. Shea did not give an opinion as to whether plaintiff could work.*fn63

In March 2009, Alexander J. Ghanayem examined plaintiff and also concluded that surgery was not the best option.*fn64 Dr. Ghanayem recommended that plaintiff undergo a pain program.*fn65 However, until the plaintiff improved, Dr. Ghanayem recommended that plaintiff stay off work.*fn66

On October 29, 2008 plaintiff again followed-up with Dr. DePhillips.*fn67 Dr. DePhillips wrote that he explained to plaintiff that he would not be comfortable proceeding with surgery because no other surgeon's agreed that it was appropriate.*fn68 He also cautioned plaintiff that surgery had only a fifty percent chance of improving his symptoms.*fn69 However, Dr. DePhillips stated that, in his opinion, surgery was a reasonable option.*fn70 Dr. DePhillips then stated, "[plaintiff] remains unemployable and disabled in my opinion."*fn71

3. Depression

Medical evidence of plaintiff's mental impairments consist of progress notes from psychiatrist Susan Crawford Sherman M.D.*fn72 The records reflect that plaintiff reported that he was spending most of his day in his bedroom, isolated from other people.*fn73 He stated that he preferred to be isolated because he feared mood changes.*fn74 He also reported to Dr. Sherman that he was angry and depressed.*fn75 According to Dr. Sherman, plaintiff suffered from major depressive disorder.*fn76 Dr. Sherman prescribed several medications throughout her treatment of plaintiff, including Prozac.*fn77

4. State Agency Reviewing Opinions

As part of the disability determination process, state agency reviewing doctors reviewed plaintiff's medical evidence and made assessments of plaintiff's limitations. On August 27, 2007, Richard Bilinsky, M.D. completed an "Illinois Request for Medical Advice" form.*fn78 Dr. Bilinsky determined that there was insufficient evidence to reach a determination as to disability.*fn79

Also on August 27, 2007, Kirk Boyenga, PhD, completed a "Psychiatric Review Technique."*fn80 Under the section labeled, "medical disposition(s)," Dr. Boyenga checked the box for "Insufficient Evidence."*fn81 Dr. Boyenga did not make any other notations.*fn82

On February 19, 2008, Barry Free, M.D. completed a "Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment."*fn83 The first section of the form required Dr. Free to assess plaintiff's functional limitations.*fn84 In terms of lifting and carrying, Dr. Free indicated that plaintiff could occasionally lift and/or carry twenty pounds of weight.*fn85 He also noted that plaintiff could frequently lift and/or carry ten pounds of weight.*fn86 According to Dr. Free, plaintiff could walk about six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday.*fn87 Dr. Free also indicated that plaintiff had an "unlimited" ability to push and/or pull.*fn88

In the second section, Dr. Free assessed plaintiff's postural limitations.*fn89 Dr. Free opined that plaintiff could frequently balance, kneel, and crouch.*fn90 Plaintiff could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, and crawl.*fn91 However, plaintiff could never climb a ladder, rope, or scaffold.*fn92

In the third section, Dr. Free assessed manipulative limitations, such as reaching handling, fingering and feeling.*fn93 Dr. Free concluded that there were no manipulative limitations established.*fn94 Dr. Free also found no established visual, communicative, or environmental limitations.*fn95

In the comments portion of the form, Dr. Free listed the medical records he examined.*fn96

These included the February 2007 MRI and Dr. Chawla's notes.*fn97 Dr. Free also noted plaintiff's history of back surgery in 1988.*fn98 However, there is no indication that Dr. Free saw any reports from Dr. DePhillips.*fn99

On February 21, 2008, Jerrold Heinrich completed another "Illinois Request for Medical Advice."*fn100 Dr. Heinrich was consulted to reconsider Dr. Boyenga's Psychiatric Review Technique.*fn101 Dr. Henirich affirmed Dr. Boyenga's assessment and wrote that there continued to be insufficient medical evidence to find a mental disability.*fn102 Dr. Heinrich stated that the medical evidence contained only "a suggestion of a history of depression."*fn103

B. Administrative Hearing

On July 1, 2009, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Poulose. The plaintiff, who was representative by counsel, and a vocational expert testified at the hearing.*fn104

1. Plaintiff's Testimony

Plaintiff testified that he lived at home with his wife and two teenage children.*fn105 He stated that the last job he held was in April 2007, building throttle and brake levers for locomotives.*fn106 He explained that he hurt his back lifting a forty or fifty pound box.*fn107 Since injuring his back, he has not returned to work.

Prior to working on the train parts, plaintiff described the jobs he held as "pretty physical."*fn108

For example, he operated a forklift and worked in a warehouse.*fn109 Plaintiff testified that he was forced to leave the forklift and warehouse jobs because of "problems with his head."*fn110 Specifically, plaintiff said that he, "couldn't deal with people."*fn111

When asked to summarize why he was unable to work, plaintiff stated three reasons: his back, his head, and his arm.*fn112 He described the pain in his back as traveling down his back into his legs on both sides.*fn113 He stated that anytime he moves, he hears his back "crack."*fn114 Plaintiff explained that sitting for prolonged periods of time exacerbated his pain and that he preferred to lie in his waterbed.*fn115 He testified that he could only stand in a line for about ten minutes.*fn116 When asked what he could lift, plaintiff stated that he could lift a twelve-case of soda pop or a gallon of milk, but not a twenty-four-case of soda pop.*fn117

As for mental issues, or his "head," plaintiff stated that he spent most days in his bedroom.*fn118

He said he does not like being around other people or taking orders.*fn119 Plaintiff said that he gets angry, so he tries to avoid being around people as much as possible.*fn120 He explained that he wants to stay in his bedroom because of "fear" and to avoid "trouble."*fn121 Therefore, he testified that he leaves his home only three or four times a month.*fn122 However, he did state that he goes fishing once a week at a pond two houses away from his.*fn123

Plaintiff also testified that he had trouble with his left hand.*fn124 He explained that he cut his hand and, as a result, he was unable to bend his thumb, ring, and pinky fingers.*fn125 According to plaintiff, this makes it difficult to hold things, like a cup of coffee, pick things up, like coins, and feel things.*fn126 When he assembled train parts, he explained that there were some elements of that job that he was unable to do because of his hand.*fn127 However, plaintiff explained that he made an arrangement with a co-worker that was unable to carry heavy items, where plaintiff would carry heavy items and the co-worker could complete the tasks that required fine motor skills.*fn128

In terms of his daily activities, plaintiff testified that he remains in his bedroom most of the day.*fn129 He is able to care for his two dogs, but this seemed to entail only opening the door to let the dogs outside.*fn130 Occasionally, he tries to do the laundry and cook dinner, but he does not grocery shop, play with his children, or mow the lawn.*fn131

2. Vocational Expert's Testimony

Next, Vocational Expert ("VE") Lee Knutson testified.*fn132 The VE was asked to opine whether an individual that was limited to light work, no interaction with the public, and only occasional interaction with co-workers could perform plaintiff's past work.*fn133 The VE stated that such an individual could not perform plaintiff's past work.*fn134 However, the VE stated that there was other work in the regional economy that a person with such limitations could complete.*fn135 The VE stated that with such limitations, there were approximately 35,000 jobs available in the region of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.*fn136 If a limitation to the left hand was added, the VE stated that the number of jobs would be, "significantly limited."*fn137

Next, the ALJ presented a hypothetical individual that must work a sedentary job with no public interaction and only occasional interaction with co-workers.*fn138 The VE stated that there would be about 5,300 jobs available in the region.*fn139 The VE stated that if, in addition, the individual could only occasionally use his left hand, then the number of jobs would be reduced significantly.*fn140

III. ALJ's Decision

In her June 27, 2008 decision, ALJ Poulose determined that plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act and, therefore, was not entitled to any DIB.*fn141 In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Act regulations (the "regulations").*fn142 Under the regulations, the ALJ must consider: (1) whether the claimant is presently engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (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 gainful activity; (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.*fn143 A finding of disability requires an affirmative answer at either step three or step five, while a negative answer at any step other than step three precludes a finding of disability.*fn144

After explaining the applicable law, ALJ Poulose began the five step evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in gainful activity between the alleged onset date, February 12, 2007, through his date last insured, December 31, 2007.*fn145

At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff suffered from two severe impairments: degenerative disk disease and major depressive disorder.*fn146 The ALJ stated that the left-hand injury non-severe because of a lack of medical evidence.*fn147 The ALJ also found that plaintiff was able to work at his previous job despite this alleged injury.*fn148

At step three, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in the regulations.*fn149

The ALJ noted that plaintiff's degenerative disc disease and major depressive disorder were not sufficiently severe to meet the Listings.*fn150

Before moving to step four, the ALJ made an RFC finding. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff, "had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined by 20 CFR 404.1567(b), except with only occasional interaction with co-workers, and no interaction with the public."*fn151 In support of this RFC finding, the ALJ summarized the record.*fn152 In doing so, the ALJ found that plaintiff's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the [RFC]."*fn153

In determining that plaintiff could complete light work, the ALJ was persuaded that Dr. Hindo and Physician's Assistant Linder cleared plaintiff to return to work.*fn154 The ALJ found support in Dr. Shea's consultative examination, which found no permanent neurological deficits and did not recommend surgery.*fn155 The ALJ stated that the state agency reviewing opinions supported the RFC, but then noted that new evidence submitted after those opinions were made "render the claimant more disabled than found by the state agency."*fn156

As for Dr. DePhillips's, who found the plaintiff disabled and recommended surgery, the ALJ assigned his opinion minimal weight.*fn157 The ALJ noted that Dr. DePhillips's opinion that plaintiff could not work did not have support of substantial medical evidence.*fn158 Also, the ALJ stated that Dr. DePhillip's use of the word "disabled" does not necessarily have the same definition utilized by the regulations.*fn159

The ALJ assigned the opinion of Dr. Ghamyem "some weight."*fn160 Although Dr. Ghamyem stated that plaintiff should stay off work, the ALJ made the assumption that Dr. Ghamyem recommendation was that plaintiff stay off of his then current work, which was required medium, not light, exertion.*fn161 Ultimately, however, the ALJ stated that it was her responsibility to determine whether plaintiff was capable of finding work.*fn162

The ALJ believed plaintiff's daily activities also supported the RFC finding. She noted that plaintiff "could independently cook dinner for his family, do laundry, and care for his dog."*fn163 The

ALJ believed this was inconsistent with his claim that he could stand and walk for only ten minutes at a time.*fn164 Additionally, the ALJ found that plaintiff's claim that he had disabling pain was inconsistent with his testimony that he could read books and had the ability to walk to a nearby fishing pond.*fn165

As for the mental impairment of major depressive disorder, the ALJ stated that although there was consistent reporting by Dr. Sherman that plaintiff had a variety of symptoms, April 2008 treatment notes indicated that plaintiff was improving.*fn166 The ALJ referenced Dr. Sherman's assessment that plaintiff had other strong mental indicators, such as above average intelligence and a good memory.*fn167 The ALJ explained that limiting only social interaction was consistent with the plaintiff's testimony that he read books, went fishing, and assisted with some household chores.*fn168

With the RFC finding complete, the ALJ moved to step four and found that plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work.*fn169 At step five, consistent with the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant could have performed.*fn170 Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled.*fn171

IV. Standard of Review

The District Court performs a de novo review of the ALJ's conclusions of law, but the ALJ's factual determinations are entitled to deference.*fn172 The Court will uphold the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports the findings of the decision and if the findings are free from legal error.*fn173 Where reasonable minds differ, it is for the ALJ, not this Court, to make the ultimate finding as to disability.*fn174 However, the ALJ must make an accurate and logical connection from the evidence to the ultimate conclusion.*fn175 While, the ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence, the ALJ must minimally articulate his reasons for crediting or discrediting evidence of disability.*fn176

V. Analysis

Plaintiff raises three arguments. First, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in disregarding his hand injury. Second, plaintiff claims that the ALJ's conclusion that he could perform light work is not supported by substantial evidence. Third, plaintiff argues that the RFC fails to properly account for his psychological limitations.

A. Hand Injury

Plaintiff's initial argument is that the ALJ incorrectly concluded that his hand injury is non-severe. The ALJ reasoned that the injury was non-severe because of a lack of medical evidence and because plaintiff was able to work at the train assembly job with the alleged injury. Plaintiff argues this reasoning is flawed and that the mistake is significant because the VE testified there would not be a significant number of jobs if this impairment was taken into account.

Pursuant to the regulations, an impairment is deemed severe if it significantly limits the ability to do basic work activities.*fn177 Handling is considered a basic work activity.*fn178 However, the determination that an impairment is severe is only utilized at step two of the ALJ's analysis.*fn179 If the ALJ classifies one impairment as severe, the analysis continues to step three.*fn180 Therefore, incorrectly classifying an impairment as non-severe is not reversible error, so long as the ALJ identified some other impairment as severe and continued with the sequential process.*fn181

Here, the ALJ classified plaintiff's degenerative disk disease and major depressive disorder as severe impairments. The ALJ then continued on to step three in accordance with the regulations. Therefore, even if the hand injury should have been deemed a severe impairment, this alone is not reversible error. Furthermore, as we note more extensively infra, there is no medical evidence concerning plaintiff's left hand injury.

In his reply brief, plaintiff concedes that a failure to classify the injury as non-severe alone does not justify remand, but he argues that the ALJ failed to give the hand injury full consideration when making the RFC determination. The ALJ must consider all impairments, including non-severe impairments, and their combined effect when determining disability.*fn182 However, when considering the plaintiff's symptoms, the ALJ is required to follow a two step process.*fn183 First, the ALJ must determine whether there is an underlying medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's symptoms.*fn184 In determining whether an underlying medically determinable impairment exists, the ALJ looks for medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.*fn185 We note that, "[n]o symptom or combination of symptoms can be the basis for a finding of disability, no matter how genuine the individual's complaints may appear to be, unless there are medical signs and laboratory findings demonstrating the existence of a medically determinable physical [impairment]."*fn186 If an underlying medically determinable impairment exists, then the ALJ proceeds to the second step, which requires the ALJ to evaluate the limiting effect of the impairment.*fn187

Here, the ALJ discounted the plaintiff's testimony regarding the limiting effect of his hand injury because there was no medical evidence in the record.*fn188 Plaintiff, however, argues that there was medical evidence of an impairment to his hand. He points us to Dr. Shea's notes, which stated decreased sensation in "the entire left upper and lower extremities."*fn189 "Give-way" weakness in the upper and lower extremities was also documented.*fn190 However, we agree with the Commissioner that this notation is far too vague for the ALJ to conclude that plaintiff had a medically determinable impairment of his left hand. The Court's review of the medical documentation does not reveal a single reference to plaintiff's left hand, and plaintiff does not refer us to such a reference. Therefore, we believe the ALJ was correct in her decision to not consider plaintiff's left hand impairment when determining his RFC.*fn191

In addition, the ALJ disregarded the hand injury because plaintiff was able to work the train assembly job despite this injury. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ misconstrued the plaintiff's testimony. Plaintiff argues that he was able to do this job, despite his injury, because he made an arrangement with another worker that plaintiff would carry heavy boxes and the other worker would complete the tasks requiring fine motor skills. Now that plaintiff has the back disorder, such an arrangement is not possible. However, we have already determined that the ALJ was correct in not evaluating the limiting effects of plaintiff's hand injury because there was no medically determinable impairment. Therefore, it is not necessary for us to consider whether the ALJ misunderstood plaintiff's testimony regarding his hand injury.

B. Physical Limitations

Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ's RFC determination in terms of his physical limitations is flawed because it is not supported by substantial evidence. First, plaintiff finds fault with the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff's daily activities were inconsistent with his subjective allegations. The ALJ stated that plaintiff could "independently cook dinner for his family, do laundry, and care for his dog."*fn192 She found this inconsistent with his claim that he was unable to stand or walk for longer than ten minutes. Additionally, the ALJ noted that the plaintiff's allegations of disabling pain were inconsistent with his ability to read books and walk to a nearby pond to fish. The Commissioner contends that these conclusions are reasonable.

Here, we agree with plaintiff and find that the ALJ did not make an accurate and logical connection from the evidence to the ultimate conclusion.*fn193 The Court fails to see how caring for his dogs, which plaintiff described as no more than opening a door to let the dogs out of the house,*fn194 is inconsistent with the claim that he could not stand for more than ten minutes. Similarly, plaintiff stated, "I try to do some laundry if I can. I try to cook dinner sometimes."*fn195 We also fail to understand how this is inconsistent with plaintiff's claim that he cannot stand for more than ten minutes. Most perplexing is the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff's ability to read a book is inconsistent with his claim that he is in severe pain. The ALJ failed to adequately articulate why the ability to read a book contradicts plaintiff's claim that he is in severe pain. We note that the Seventh Circuit has specifically stated that limited daily activities do not contradict a claim of disabling pain.*fn196 Therefore, we find that the ALJ did not build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence, that plaintiff could complete certain daily activities, to the conclusion, that plaintiff's subjective complaints were inconsistent with these daily activities.

Second, plaintiff points to the ALJ's comment regarding the state agency reviewing doctors. These doctors, specifically Dr. Free, found plaintiff capable of performing light work. However, the ALJ noted that additional evidence was submitted since these opinions were rendered that made plaintiff more disabled than found by the state agency reviewers. It does not follow, plaintiff argues, that the ALJ then concludes that plaintiff is capable of performing light work.

Again, we agree with plaintiff. If the state agency reviewing doctors concluded that plaintiff was capable of completing light work, but additional evidence submitted after that determination rendered plaintiff more disabled, we do not understand how the ALJ concluded plaintiff was capable of completing light work. Again, the ALJ failed to build a logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion. On remand, the ALJ should more thoroughly explain this apparent discrepancy.

Plaintiff's third argument is more general: the ALJ's finding that plaintiff could complete light work is not supported by substantial evidence. As we have stated, the ALJ's conclusions must be supported by substantial evidence.*fn197 Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."*fn198

Here, the ALJ relied on the recommendations of Physician Assistant Linder and Dr. Hindo that plaintiff could return to work. The ALJ acknowledged that Drs. DePhillips and Dr. Ghanayem stated that plaintiff should stay off work, but the ALJ stated her belief that these directions were related to plaintiff's past work - which is classified as medium work. The ALJ found this to be consistent with her finding because she concluded that the plaintiff could not complete his past work. The ALJ also noted that it was ultimately for her to decide whether a claimant can work.

The Court notes that it is ultimately for the ALJ to determine whether a claimant is disabled and that a statement by a physician that the claimant is disabled is not controlling.*fn199 Nonetheless, the statement by Dr. DePhillips that plaintiff is "unemployable" should be considered by the ALJ.*fn200

Furthermore, although the ALJ reasoned that the statements made were likely regarding plaintiff's past work, this does not support a finding that the plaintiff can complete light work. In other words, while the ALJ's inference does not contradict her conclusion, it also does not support her RFC finding.

The ALJ was required to articulate her reasoning for the conclusion that plaintiff could complete light work. The regulations define "light work" as "lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds."*fn201 Nowhere in the ALJ's decision do we see an explanation that the plaintiff could lift and carry ten pounds frequently. Instead, the only discussion regarding his ability to lift and carry is the discussion of plaintiff's testimony that he could lift a twelve-case of soda pop or a gallon of milk. This does not establish that plaintiff could complete the requirements for light work.

In fact, the only assessment of what activities plaintiff could complete, consistent with the requirements of light work, in the entire record is the "Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment"completed by Dr. Free. As we have noted, the ALJ found that evidence submitted after Dr. Free's assessment rendered the plaintiff more disabled. Therefore, we are unsure how the ALJ reached the conclusion that plaintiff could complete light work. Indeed, Dr. Free rendered his opinion without the aid of Dr. DePhillips's assessment. This is significant because Dr. DePhillips's conclusion about plaintiff's condition was the most severe out of all the doctors that examined plaintiff. Furthermore, when an ALJ evaluates a nonexamining physician's opinion, such as Dr. Free's opinion, the ALJ is obligated to consider the extent to which the nonexamining opinion considered all of the pertinent evidence, such as opinions from treating and examining physicians.*fn202 Therefore, remand is necessary so that the ALJ can more thoroughly articulate how she reached her conclusions.

C. Psychological Limitations

Finally, plaintiff argues that the ALJ incorrectly assessed plaintiff's mental limitations. He asserts that while it was appropriate to eliminate plaintiff's contact with the public and limit his contact with co-workers, an appropriate RFC would accommodate for additional psychiatric limitations.

Plaintiff in this case had a documented history of depression, anger issues, and a fear of leaving his home. The ALJ found that the plaintiff had moderate limitations in social functioning and mild limitations in the area of activities of daily living. To remedy these problems, the ALJ limited plaintiff's interaction with co-workers and eliminated his contact with the public. The Commissioner argues that this is sufficient and that plaintiff identifies no evidence that plaintiff had additional mental limitations that were not reasonably accommodated by the ALJ's RFC.

Again, we find that the ALJ did not adequately explain her reasoning here. Plaintiff stated in his testimony that he has fear of leaving his home. This fear was stated in his testimony and documented by Dr. Sherman. Further, the ALJ does not directly discredit this fear. However, the ALJ fails to explain how limiting plaintiff's interaction with co-workers and the public would abate this fear. Moreover, the ALJ states that plaintiff had moderate limitations in social functioning, but it is not clear how the ALJ reached this conclusion. For example, it is not clear why the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's social functioning was moderately limited instead of markedly. As with the physical limitations, we find that the ALJ has not built the accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to her conclusion.*fn203

Additionally, plaintiff argues that consultation of a medical expert was necessary in this case. We note that an ALJ is not permitted to "play doctor" or make independent medical conclusions.*fn204 Instead, the ALJ must base her conclusions on the evidence.*fn205 If necessary, the ALJ may consult a medical expert.*fn206 However, we are mindful that it is within the ALJ's discretion to consult a medical expert.*fn207 At this time, we remand only so that the ALJ can more adequately articulate her reasoning. We do not conclude that the ALJ has "played doctor" in this instance because we are simply unclear how the ALJ reached her conclusions. However, if the ALJ is unable to reach a conclusion without making her own independent medical conclusion, then testimony from a medical expert may be necessary.*fn208

VI. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part [dkt. 18]. We, therefore, remand the case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.



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