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David Bulger v. Michael J. Astrue

December 14, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James F. Holderman, Chief Judge:


Plaintiff David Bulger seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Bulger filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 9) requesting that the Commissioner's decision be set aside or reversed and remanded. The Commissioner also filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 14) requesting that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. For the reasons set forth below, Bulger's motion (Dkt. No. 9) is denied, the Commissioner's motion (Dkt. No. 14) is granted, and the Commissioner's final decision is affirmed.


Bulger filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on March 19, 2009. (See R. at 12.) Bulger alleged that he was disabled as of November 8, 2007, because he suffered from mental illness, including dysthymic disorder and an anxiety disorder, and because he suffered from chronic back, leg, and hip pain. (Id.) The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Bulger's claims initially on June 19, 2009, and on rehearing on October 26, 2009. (Id.) Bulger then requested a hearing, which was held on August 31, 2010, by the assigned ALJ. (Id.)

On November 23, 2010, the ALJ denied Bulger's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Bulger requested review of the ALJ's decision, and the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council denied his request on July 29, 2011 (R. at 1-4), making the November 23, 2010, ruling by the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561 (7th Cir. 2009). Bulger filed his complaint in this court on September 28, 2011, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Dkt. No. 1.) Cross motions for summary judgment were filed.


The court performs a de novo review of the ALJ's legal conclusions, while giving deference to the ALJ's factual determinations. Jones v.Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). In other words, the court "will uphold the Commissioner's decisions so long as the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and substantial evidence supported the decision." Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "Substantial evidence is 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Jones, 623 F.3d at 1160 (quoting Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)). When reviewing for substantial evidence, the court does not substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ by re-weighing evidence or making credibility determinations. Skinner, 478 F.3d at 841. The court does, however, require that the ALJ adequately explain his decision by building "a 'logical bridge' between the evidence and the conclusions so that [the court] can assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford the claimant meaningful judicial review." Jones, 623 F.3d at 1160 (quoting Getch v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 473, 480 (7th Cir. 2008)).


The Social Security Administration requires an ALJ to follow a five-step process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The five-step process requires the ALJ to ask:

1) is the claimant presently unemployed; 2) is the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments severe; 3) does the impairment meet or exceed any of the list of specific impairments (the grid) that the Secretary acknowledges to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity; 4) if the impairment has not been listed by the Secretary as conclusively disabling, is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation; and 5) if the claimant cannot perform the past occupation, is the claimant unable to perform other work in the national economy in light of his or her age, education and work experience.

Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992). When applying those steps, "[a] negative conclusion at any step (except for step three) precludes a finding of disability. An affirmative answer at steps one, two or four leads to the next step. An affirmative answer at steps three or five results in a finding of disability." Id.

Here, the ALJ found at step one that Bulger was unemployed, and at step two that he suffered from the severe impairments of dysthymic disorder (a type of depression) and anxiety. (R. at 14-15.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Bulger's impairments did not meet the requirements of any of the regulatory listings. (R. at 15-16.) At step four, the ALJ found that Bulger's mental illness affected him somewhat, but that he was capable of performing work with "non-exertional limitations that restrict him to simple routine repetitive work involving three or four step tasks." (R. at 16.) The ALJ also found that this impairment did not prevent Bulger from working in his former occupation as a stock clerk, so the ALJ determined that Bulger was not disabled. (R. at 20-21.) The ALJ determined in the alternative that Bulger could work as a janitor, assembler, or hand packager. (R. at 21.)

Bulger contends that the ALJ erred first by discounting the opinions of Bulger's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Gardner, and his treating therapist, Carrie Knudsen, in her determination that Bulger was able to perform work as a stock clerk. In the context of disability determinations, "[a] treating doctor's opinion receives controlling weight if it is 'well-supported' and 'not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence' in the record." Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). If the treating physician's opinion does not merit controlling weight, the ALJ must determine the weight it deserves by considering "'the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of examination, the physician's specialty, the types of tests performed, and the consistency and supportability of the physician's opinion.'" Id. at 740 (quoting Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2009)). The ALJ must express "good reasons" for discounting the treating physician's opinion. Id. at 739 (citations omitted).

Here, both Dr. Gardner and Knudsen checked the box "no" in response to a question on a medical report asking if Bulger was "able to function in a competitive work setting . . . on an eight-hour per day, five days per week basis?" (R. at 350, 371.) The ALJ discounted those opinions because neither Dr. Gardner nor Knudsen explained their ...

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