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Cynthia S. Doering v. Michael J. Astrue

April 24, 2012

CYNTHIA S. DOERING, 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 Cynthia S. Doering (Doering) appeals from an ALJ's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and the parties have cross-filed for summary judgment. Because the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, the denial of benefits is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background

Doering applied for DIB in April 2007, alleging she became totally disabled on January 1, 2001, when she was 44 years old, because of rib dysfunction and pain in her back, neck, tailbone, and buttocks. (R. 85, 118). Doering's insured status for DIB purposes expired on December 31, 2005, which means Doering had to show she was disabled on or before that date to be eligible for DIB.

Doering was born on May 9, 1956 and has a history of back, neck, shoulder, and buttocks pain resulting from a chiropractic injury in 1990 and a subsequent neck injury in 2000. Doering also suffers from hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, peripheral neuropathy, and nutritional deficiencies, among other conditions. Doering has a bachelor of science degree in nutrition from the University of Illinois and previously worked as a dietician. (R. 27-28).

Under the familiar five-step analysis used to evaluate disability, the ALJ found that Doering had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2001, the alleged onset date of disability (step one); her musculoskeletal pain involving her neck and back are severe impairments (step two); but that they do not qualify as a listed impairment (step three). (R. 19). The ALJ determined that Doering retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a range of light work with the exceptions that she was not to climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and was limited to occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, crawling, or climbing ramps and stairs. Id. Given this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Doering was able to perform her past relevant work as a clinical dietician (step four). (R. 21). In the alternative, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the economy that Doering could perform considering her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (step five). (R. 22).

The Appeals Council granted Doering's request for review and corrected Doering's date last insured to December 31, 2005. The Appeals Council found that Doering was not disabled prior to December 31, 2005 because she could perform her past relevant work or a significant number of jobs in the national economy. (R. 1-8). Doering now seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner, which is the Appeals Council decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

II. Discussion

Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if he has an "inability to engage in 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals any of the listings found in the regulations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (2004); (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his former occupation; and (5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any other available work in light of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (2004); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). These steps are to be performed sequentially. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). "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." Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (quoting Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985)).

Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence or based upon a legal error. Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). An ALJ's credibility determination should be upheld unless it is patently wrong. Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 875 (7th Cir. 2010). This Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998).

The Appeals Council denied Doering's claim at step four, finding that Doering retains the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work. Even if Doering was unable to perform her past relevant work, the Appeals Council found Doering would not be disabled at step five. Doering raises five main challenges to the ALJ's decision: (1) the ALJ improperly failed to find that she met Listing 5.08; (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinions; (3) the ALJ erred in assessing Doering's residual functional capacity; (4) the ALJ erred in evaluating Doering's credibility; and (5) the ALJ improperly relied on the vocational expert's testimony.*fn1 Because the ALJ's credibility assessment was seriously deficient, a remand for further proceedings is necessary.*fn2

"The ALJ's credibility determinations are entitled to special deference but the ALJ is still required to 'build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result.'" Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 929 (7th Cir. 2010). ALJs are required to "carefully evaluate all evidence bearing on the severity of pain and give specific reasons for discounting a claimant's testimony about it." Martinez v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 693, 697 (7th Cir. 2011). Further, in evaluating a claimant's credibility, the ALJ must comply with SSR 96-7p and articulate the reasons for the credibility determination. Brindisi v. Barnhart, 315 F.3d 783, 787 (7th Cir. 2003). SSR 96-7p lists seven factors in addition to the objective medical evidence to be considered in a credibility analysis including the claimant's daily activities, the level of pain or symptoms, aggravating factors, medication, treatment, other measures to relieve pain, and limitations. SSR 96-7p, at *3. SSR 96-7p provides that the ALJ's credibility determination must be "sufficiently specific to make clear to the individual and to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the individual's statements and the reasons for that weight." SSR 96-7p, at *4. The ALJ's credibility determination "must contain specific reasons for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case record." Id. It is not sufficient for an ALJ to "make a conclusory statement that 'the individual's allegations have been considered' or that 'the allegations are (or are not) credible.'" Id.

In this case, the ALJ's credibility determination was inadequate for several reasons. The ALJ's entire credibility assessment consists of the following:

After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the above residual functional capacity assessment. Based on the totality of the evidence, giving partial credit to claimant's subjective complaints and alleged limitations and allowing for the little objective support for claimant's allegations in the objective medical evidence, I find that the claimant remains capable of performing substantial gainful activity within the above cited parameters. (R. 21). ...


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