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Sturdivant v. Astrue

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

September 26, 2013

JAMES STURDIVANT, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SAMUEL DER-YEGHIAYAN, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff James Sturdivant's (Sturdivant) motion for summary judgment is granted, and Defendant Social Security Administration's (SSA) summary judgment motion is denied. This matter is remanded to the SSA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

In December 2009, Sturdivant applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), contending that he has severe physical and mental impairments, including back and knee pain, left ulnar neuropathy, and obesity. In March 2010, Sturdivant's SSI was denied and in August 2010, Sturdivant's request for reconsideration was denied. Sturdivant then requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). After a hearing, the ALJ denied the claim for SSI, and the Appeals Council subsequently denied Sturdivant's request for review. Sturdivant then filed the instant appeal. Sturdivant has filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to have this case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings, (P SJ Mem. 20), and Defendant has filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to have the ALJ's decision affirmed.

LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), a party can seek judicial review of administrative decisions made under the Social Security Act. When an ALJ's decision is deemed to be "the final action of the Social Security Administration, the reviewing district court examines the ALJ's decision to determine whether substantial evidence supports it and whether the ALJ applied the proper legal criteria." Allord v. Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 415 (7th Cir. 2011).

DISCUSSION

An ALJ examines a claim of disability under a five-step process. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673-74 (7th Cir. 2008). In step one, the ALJ "considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity." Id. In step two, the ALJ "evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement." Id. In step three, the ALJ "compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling." Id. If the applicant's impairment satisfies "or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled" and the inquiry ends. Id. If the inquiry continues, in step four, the ALJ "assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work." Id. In step five, the ALJ "assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work" and "[i]f the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled." Id.

In the instant appeal, Sturdivant argues: (1) that the ALJ erred in determining Sturdivant's RFC, (2) that the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider Sturdivant's mental impairments, (3) that the ALJ erred in analyzing Sturdivant's credibility, (4) that the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider Sturdivant's obesity, and (5) that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinions of Dr. James Benson (Benson), a treating physician.

I. RFC Determination

Sturdivant argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider Sturdivant's limitations from his left ulnar neuropathy or his limitations in standing and walking in making the RFC determination. The ALJ found that Sturdivant has the capacity to "perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967 (b)." (AR 30). In determining an applicant's RFC, the ALJ "must evaluate all relevant evidence... including evidence of impairments that are not severe." Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 591 (7th Cir. 2012). An ALJ is not required to "mention every snippet of evidence in the record, " but an ALJ "must analyze a claimant's impairments in combination" and "may not ignore entire lines of contrary evidence." Id. at 592. An ALJ's decision should be upheld "if the evidence supports the decision and the ALJ explains his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful review." Id. at 591-92.

A. Limitations from Left Ulnar Neuropathy

Sturdivant contends that the ALJ erred by not including limitations from Sturdivant's left ulnar neuropathy in the RFC determination. Specifically, Sturdivant contends that the ALJ did not properly address Sturdivant's poor strength rating in his left wrist as a result of his ulnar neuropathy and failed to consider the effect of the limited occasional use of one hand on the capacity to work. The ALJ acknowledged that Sturdivant's severe impairments include left ulnar neuropathy. (AR 28). The record also includes a pain clinic output assessment which reported that at a physical exam in 2009, Sturdivant had a "left wrist weakness" score of 3/5. (AR 362). The ALJ concluded that there was no left wrist weakness limitation, stating that Sturdivant's "fine and gross manipulations were normal bilaterally" and that Sturdivant can carry items "using both upper extremities." (AR 31-32). The ALJ relied upon a report from an examination by Dr. Charles Carlton (Carlton) in 2010. (AR 31-32). However, in the report Carlton merely concluded that he believed Sturdivant "can safely carry and handle objects using both hands." (AR 300). Carlton did not specifically address the effects of the weakness in Sturdivant's wrist that would be caused by the ulnar neuropathy, that the ALJ herself acknowledges exists. Whether Sturdivant was able to lift and carry items using his upper extremities is separate from the issue of whether Sturdivant's ulnar neuropathy would limit his use of his left wrist to occasional use and whether such occasional use would impact Sturdivant's capacity to do certain work. A review of the 2009 exam report shows that Sturdivant's muscle strength scores for his upper and lower extremities were 5/5, consistent with Carlton's conclusion and the ALJ's conclusion that Sturdivant could lift and carry items with his upper extremities. (AR 362). However, the 2009 exam also separately noted the wrist limitation, and the 3/5 strength score for his left wrist, which presented a separate limitation issue. (AR 362). Benson had also indicated in his report that Sturdivant had a significant reduction in the dexterity of his left hand. (AR 485). The ALJ even recognized in her decision that the occasional use of one hand by Sturdivant could be a relevant consideration, noting that Sturdivant's dominant hand was his right hand. (AR 32). The ALJ also posed a question to the Vocational Expert (VE) asking if the light work jobs discussed by the VE would be possible if the individual "was limited to occasional handling with his left non-dominant upper extremity" and the VE responded in the negative. (AR 74-75). It was incumbent upon the ALJ to adequately develop the record on the issue of whether Sturdivant's limitation in his left wrist would exclude certain jobs and the ALJ failed to do so. See Shauger v. Astrue, 6 ...


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