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Keene v. Colvin

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

June 24, 2014

LIZZIE M. KEENE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SAMUEL DER-YEGHIAYAN, District Judge.

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

BACKGROUND

In February 2010, Keene applied for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income. Keene's application was denied and then denied again on reconsideration. Keene then requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). After a hearing on December 12, 2011 (Hearing), the ALJ denied the claim, and the Appeals Council denied Keene's request for review. Keene subsequently filed the instant action on May 10, 2013. Keene 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 has filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to have the ALJ's decision affirmed.

LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §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 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, Keene argues: (1) that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinion of Keene's treating physician, (2) that the ALJ erred in determining Keene's RFC, (3) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the credibility of Keene, and (4) that the ALJ erred by making independent medical findings.

I. Opinion of Treating Physician

Keene argues that the ALJ failed to give adequate weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Matthew Kalscheur (Kalscheur). The opinion of a treating physician "is entitled to controlling weight if it is supported by medical findings and consistent with substantial evidence in the record." Bates v. Colvin, 736 F.3d 1093, 1099-00 (7th Cir. 2013). If the opinion of the treating physician "is well supported and there is no contradictory evidence, there is no basis on which the administrative judge, who is not a physician, could refuse to accept it, " but "once well-supported contradicting evidence is introduced, the treating physician's evidence is no longer entitled to controlling weight and becomes just one more piece of evidence for the ALJ to consider." Id. (internal quotations omitted)( Bauer v. Astrue, 532 F.3d 606, 608 (7th Cir. 2008)). An ALJ must "give good reasons' for not giving the well-supported opinion of a treating physician controlling weight....'" Martinez v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 693, 698 (7th Cir. 2011)(quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)).

Kalscheur, who treated Keene on several occasions, found that Keene suffers from "severe knee pain and weakness." (AR 394). Kalscheur also found that Keene suffers from depression to an extent that it affects her physical condition. (AR 394). In addition, Kalscheur found that during a typical workday, Keene would frequently experience pain or other symptoms severe enough to interfere with the attention and concentration needed to perform even simple work tasks. (AR 394). Kalschuer also estimated that Keene was likely to be absent from work an average of three days a month as a result of her impairments or treatment. (AR 395). Kalschuer further made certain specific findings concerning Keene's ability to sit, stand, walk, and carry weight. (AR 395-94).

The ALJ stated that she did not "assign controlling or great weight to the opinion of Dr. Kalscheur, who opined that [Keene] could sit about 2 hours a day, stand less than 2 hours a day, and had other work-related limitations...." (AR 24). The ALJ stated that such "extreme limitations are inconsistent with the evidence of record, including [Keene's] own reports of the work that she was doing...." (AR 24). The ALJ referenced "normal findings on examination, " but failed to address how Kalschuer's opinion was inconsistent with evidence in the record showing, for example, severe degenerative problems in Keene's knees. (AR 24, 282-83, 310-11). The ALJ also failed to adequately explain why she declined to accept Kalscheur's opinion that Keene suffered from depression, which impacted her functional capacity. (AR 24, 394).

The ALJ stated that Kalscheur's opinion as to Keene's limitations were inconsistent with Keene's "own reports of the work that she was doing" at her place of employment. (AR 24). However, there is no indication that the ALJ looked beyond the general fact that Keene had engaged in some part-time employment. To the extent that the ALJ referenced Keene's "own reports" about her part-time work that indicated an increased capacity to work, it is unclear what "reports" the ALJ was referring to in her decision. Keene testified at the Hearing that when she was unable to stand any longer at work, she was allowed to sit and given paper work. (AR 42). Keene also testified that when Keene was in "a lot of pain" at work and was "in tears, " Keene was actually "sent home." (AR 42). The ALJ failed to adequately explain why she failed to give controlling weight to a physician who had personally examined Keene and had a treatment history with Keene. The ALJ also did not specify that she had considered the checklist, (AR 24), which she was required to consider upon concluding that she would not give controlling weight to a treating physician. See Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 308 (7th Cir. 2010)(stating that "[e]ven if an ALJ gives good reasons for not giving controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion, she has to decide what weight to give that opinion" and must consider a specific "checklist"). Although the ALJ erred in ...


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