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Corrinda Spaulding v. Michael J. Astrue

August 13, 2012

CORRINDA SPAULDING, 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 Corrinda Spaulding (Spaulding) 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) (doc. 7) and filed cross-filed motions for summary judgment. Because the ALJ's credibility 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.

BACKGROUND

Spaulding appeals from an ALJ's decision deny her application for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act. This case has a long history at the administrative level and in the federal courts. See Spaulding v. Astrue, 702 F.Supp.2d 983 (N.D. Ill. 2010); Spaulding v. Barnhart, 2007 WL 1610445 (N.D. Ill. March 2, 2007); Spaulding v. Barnhart, 2004 WL 1093312 (N.D. Ill. May 13, 2004); Spaulding v. Halter, 2001 WL 311420 (7th Cir. March 28, 2001); Spaulding v. Apfel, 2000 WL 1222122 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 22, 2000). The Court assumes familiarity with the underlying facts and procedural history of the case, which it references only as necessary to explain its decision.

Spaulding was born on August 3, 1966 (R. 39) and has a history of stomach-related ailments, including hiatal hernia, gastroesophageal reflux, chronic dyspepsia and erosive gastritis.

Her symptoms include abdominal cramping, chronic diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Spaulding completed high school and previously worked as bank teller, factory inspector, payroll clerk, and factory operator/inspector. Spaulding originally applied for DIB on September 11, 1996, alleging she became totally disabled on December 16,1993 when she was 27 years old. On September 16, 2005, Spaulding was awarded supplement security income benefits as of April 27, 2004. (R. 339-47). Therefore, the only period at issue here is December 16, 1993 to April 27, 2004. Spaulding's insured status for DIB purposes expired on December 31, 1998, which means Spaulding had to show she was disabled on or before that date to be eligible for DIB.

Under the standard five-step analysis used to evaluate disability, the ALJ found that Spaulding had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of December 16, 1993 (step one); her hiatal hernia and gastrointestinal impairments in combination were severe (step two); but that they did not qualify as a listed impairment (step three). (R. 644-45). The ALJ determined that Spaulding retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of light work during the period at issue, December 16, 1993 to April 27, 2004. (R. 645). Given this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Spaulding was able to perform her past relevant work as a bank teller (step four). (R. 650). The ALJ did not reach step five of the analysis and denied her application. Spaulding now seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which is the ALJ's February 8, 2011 ruling. O'Conner-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010).

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 ALJ denied Spaulding's claim at step four, finding that Spaulding retains the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of light work. Spaulding raises one main challenge to the ALJ's decision, namely that the ALJ failed to properly analyze her credibility as required by Social Security Ruling 96-7p. The Court agrees that the ALJ's credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence.

A. The ALJ's Credibility Determination

"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 [or symptoms] 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 Social Security Ruling 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. That Ruling 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.

In this case, the ALJ concluded that Spaulding's "medically determinable impairments might reasonably be expected to cause symptoms that she described but not of the severity and frequency portrayed throughout the period at issue, consistent with the detailed review of the treatment records . . . and the assessment of gastroenterologist Jilhewar, M.D., the last medical expert to testify." (R. 647). The Court considers Spaulding's various challenges to the ALJ's credibility assessment in turn below and concludes that the ALJ's credibility determination was ...


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