United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Urbana Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
DAVID G. BERNTHAL, Magistrate Judge.
In March 2011, Administrative Law Judge David Thompson denied Plaintiff Ryan Seymour's applications for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. ALJ Thompson based his decision on his finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and was able to perform jobs that are available in the national and regional economy.
This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security and in October 2012, Plaintiff filed a Complaint (#1) against Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. In May 2013, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (#15). In June 2013, the Commissioner filed a Motion for An Order Which Affirms The Commissioner's Decision (#17). Plaintiff subsequently filed a Motion for Leave to File a Reply Memorandum (#18), which the Court treated as a reply. After reviewing the administrative record and the parties' memoranda, this Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (#15) be GRANTED and that the Commissioner's Motion for An Order Which Affirms the Commissioner's Decision (#17) be DENIED.
A. Procedural Background
In September 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging an onset date of July 31, 2005. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. In May 2009, ALJ Thompson held a hearing at which Plaintiff, Plaintiff's father, and Chrisann Schiro Geist, a vocational expert, testified. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. In March 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social Security Act and denying him benefits. The Appeals Council denied review and Plaintiff filed his complaint in the district court, seeking review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
B. Medical Background
The ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments including degenerative disc disease, obesity, and anxiety. The ALJ acknowledged that Plaintiff has been diagnosed and treated for depression in the past and noted it as an existing but nonsevere impairment. Both parties are familiar with Plaintiff's medical background, and the Court will not repeat it here.
C. The ALJ's Decision
The ALJ followed the five-step procedure for assessing disability. At step one, he determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2005. At step two, he determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, obesity, and anxiety; however, his depression was nonsevere. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform work at a sedentary exertional level. Due to his degenerative disc disease and obesity, the ALJ limited him to work that allows him to sit and/or stand at will. The ALJ further limited Plaintiff to only occasional stooping, crouching, and crawling, and no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He must avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights. Because of his anxiety, he requires jobs with little change in job process, and with only occasional contact with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled and was able to perform jobs that are available in the national and regional economy.
II. Standard of Review
In reviewing an ALJ's decision, this Court does not try the case de novo or replace the ALJ's findings with the Court's own assessment of the evidence. Pugh v. Bowen , 870 F.2d 1271, 1274 (7th Cir. 1989). Instead, the Court must affirm the decision to deny benefits if the ALJ correctly applied the law and supported the decision with substantial evidence. Jelinek v. Astrue , 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). The Supreme Court has defined substantial evidence as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Stated differently, if reasonable minds could differ as to whether a plaintiff is disabled, the Court must uphold the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. Books v. Chater , 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision should be reversed because (1) the ALJ's decision contained confusing and misplaced explanations of the applicable legal standards; (2) the ALJ failed to assess properly the treating physicians' opinions; (3) the ALJ did not appropriately assess the State Agency reviewing expert's opinion of Plaintiff's social limitations; (4) the ALJ failed to resolve an obvious conflict between the vocational expert (VE) testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ; and (5) the ALJ's credibility assessment contained numerous errors.
A. The Applicable Legal Standard
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to focus on the correct legal standards because he referred to the standard applicable to judicial review of an ALJ's decision rather than the standard the ALJ must use when determining benefit eligibility. Plaintiff acknowledges a recent decision, Linneman v. Astrue , No. 11 C 1389 (C.D. Ill.Dec. 6, 2012), in which the district court stated that referring to the wrong standard, although confusing, does not constitute reversible error. Nevertheless, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's error here is more significant because he made other legal errors.
The Court disagrees. The language regarding legal standards to which Plaintiff refers is found in the ALJ's introductory material. There is no indication that the ALJ did not know and apply the preponderance of the evidence standard when determining benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1453(a). The Court suggests that the ALJ clarify this section to refer to the appropriate standard. Nevertheless, the Court will not reverse the decision on the sole ground that the ALJ included language regarding the standard for judicial review and did not state the evidentiary standard of preponderance of the evidence.
B. Treating Doctors' Opinions
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when assessing the opinions of Dr. Runde, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Lee, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, and Mr. Hunter, Plaintiff's counselor. According to Social Security Regulations, the ALJ will give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion if the opinion (1) is well-supported by medically-acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and (2) is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). If the treating source's opinion does not merit controlling weight, then the ALJ will consider the factors listed in the Regulations and will explain the reasons for the weight given to the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
1. Dr. Lee's Opinions
Because the ALJ's assessment of Dr. Lee's records and opinions constitutes reversible error, the Court ...