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Shoffner v. Astrue

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

June 12, 2014

CHARLES M. SHOFFNER, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SAMUEL DER-YEGHIAYAN, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Charles M. Shoffner's (Shoffner) motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted in part and this matter is remanded to Defendant Social Security Administration (SSA) for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

The record reflects that in May of 1999 Shoffner, who is married and a father of three children, had been working as a machinist for twenty years, and did landscape work on the side. Shoffner was returning from a job to the main base and was a passenger in a landscaping truck when an accident occurred, causing the truck to tip onto its side. During the accident, the driver was thrown onto Shoffner, causing serious spinal injuries to Shoffner. Shoffner also alleges that he suffers from certain mental impairments. Shoffner alleges that he was disabled beginning in May of 1999. In May of 2009, Shoffner applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Shoffner's application was denied, and then denied again on reconsideration. Shoffner then requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). After a hearing (Hearing), the ALJ denied the claim for SSI, and the Appeals Council subsequently denied Shoffner's request for review. Shoffner subsequently filed the instant action on August 10, 2011. Shoffner has filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to have the ALJ's decision reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, and seeking in the alternative to have this case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings to correct errors made by the ALJ. SSA opposes the motion for summary judgment and requests that the court affirm the ALJ's decision.

LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง405(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 her 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, Shoffner argues: (1) that the ALJ erred in his step three analysis, (2) that the ALJ erred in his RFC determination, (3) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the credibility of Shoffner, and (4) that the ALJ erred in his step five analysis.

I. Step Three Analysis

Shoffner argues that the ALJ erred in his step three analysis, when he was required to compare the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling, and determine whether Shoffner's impairment satisfies or equals one of the listed impairments. Craft, 539 F.3d at 673-74. The ALJ concluded that Shoffner's "impairments do not meet or medically equal any listed impairment...." (AR 11). Shoffner points to medical evidence in the record that appears to indicate that Shoffner met the requirements for Listing 1.04. While an ALJ does not need to point to every portion of the record upon which the ALJ relied, the ALJ must do more than provide conclusory statements and must build a logical bridge from the record to his conclusions. See Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 362 (7th Cir. 2013)(stating that "[i]n rendering a decision, an ALJ must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion")(internal quotations omitted)(quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005)). The ALJ in considering the criteria of any section in category 1.01, such as Listing 1.04, concluded that Shoffner's "musculoskeletal injuries and residuals of surgery do not satisfy the criteria...." (AR 11). The ALJ further states that "[t]he required objective and neurological findings are not demonstrated by the evidence of the record." (AR 11). However, as Shoffner points out there is medical evidence in the record that pertains to listings in category 1.01 such as Listing 1.04. (AR 331, 395-96). Listing 1.04 includes "[d]isorders of the spine (e.g., herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet arthritis, vertebral fracture), resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord...." 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The record includes evidence that showed that after Shoffner was seriously injured in the truck accident while working, a cervical laminectomy and L-S laminectomy were subsequently performed. (AR 395-96). There is also evidence in the record indicating, for example, that Shoffner had a herniated disc C6-C7, and "nucleus pulposus and fibrocartilage tissues with ragged fraying and fibular degenerative changes." (AR 331). Shoffner also correctly points out that, based on the medical record, the ALJ should have addressed listings such as Listing 1.03, which deals in part with "[r]econstructive surgery or surgical arthrodesis of a major weight-bearing joint, with inability to ambulate effectively" and Section 4.00, which deals with the cardiovascular system. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. There is no indication that the ALJ adequately considered such listings.

Shoffner also argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider his psychiatric impairments when determining whether his impairments met the requirements for Listing 12.04, which deals with Affective Disorders. Shoffner argues that although the ALJ considered paragraph B criteria for Affective Disorders, which deals with a set of impairment-related functional limitations, the ALJ erred by not considering paragraph A criteria for Affective Disorders, which deals with a set of medical findings. Id. The ALJ specifically addressed the paragraph B criteria and paragraph C criteria finding that the criteria for paragraph B were not met and the criteria for paragraph C were met. (AR 11-12). Although the ALJ adequately addressed the paragraph B criteria and paragraph C criteria, since this case will be remanded for further proceedings, the ALJ on remand should address the paragraph A criteria as well.

Shoffner has also shown that Dr. Larry Kravitz (Kravitz) mistakenly testified at the Hearing that Shoffner's alcohol dependence was in partial remission. (AR 49). The ALJ relied upon such information provided by Kravitz and stated in his findings that Shoffner's alcohol dependence was in "partial remission." (AR 11). SSA admits that Kravitz misstated the diagnosis of Shoffner at the Hearing. (Ans. 7). SSA argues, however, that there was no significant prejudice to Shoffner by such mistake. The ALJ indicated that in formulating his decision, he took the testimony of Kravitz into consideration, and thus the ALJ may have relied in part on inaccurate information. (AR 15). On remand, the ALJ should ensure that his findings are premised only on accurate information concerning Shoffner's limitations.

Finally, Shoffner correctly points out that the ALJ failed to specify whether he considered the effect of the combination of Shoffner's physical and mental impairments at step three. In determining whether a claimant has a disability, "[a]n ALJ must also analyze a claimant's impairments in combination." Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012). SSA argues that it can be implied from the content of the ALJ's decision that he considered the effect of such a combination of impairments. (Ans. 8). On remand, the ALJ ...


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