Argued: May 28, 2014.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division. No. 1:12-CV-75 -- Joseph S. Van Bokkelen, Judge.
For CHERYL ANN BEARDSLEY, Plaintiff - Appellant: Joseph S. Sellers, Attorney, SPECTOR & LENZ, Chicago, IL.
For CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant - Appellee: Andrew Neltner, Attorney, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Office of the General Counsel, Region V, Chicago, IL.
Before RIPPLE, WILLIAMS, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.
Hamilton, Circuit Judge.
This appeal from the denial of Social Security disability benefits is unusual because the administrative law judge discounted the opinion of the agency's own examining physician to conclude that the claimant before him was not disabled. Claimant Cheryl Beardsley argues that the ALJ erred by giving too little weight to the opinion of the examining doctor and too much weight to an erroneous view of her daily activities, particularly the care she provided for her elderly mother. Ms. Beardsley also argues that the ALJ improperly held against her the decision not to seek surgery without trying to ascertain the reasons for her reluctance. We agree. These errors undermined the " logical bridge" between evidence and conclusion that is needed to affirm a denial of disability benefits. See Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). The judgment of the district court affirming the denial of benefits is reversed and Ms. Beardsley's case is remanded to the Commissioner of Social Security for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Ms. Beardsley was 49 years old when she fell and injured her knee. At that time, she had a history of working as a machine operator, assembler, inspector, and cashier. After the injury, Ms. Beardsley applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Her doctors determined that she had meniscal tears and a ruptured ligament. The effects of these injuries were compounded by her obesity and her worsening osteoarthritis in that same knee. Ms. Beardsley declined to have surgery for the ligament damage but received a series of injections for the arthritis.
After Ms. Beardsley applied for disability benefits, Dr. Larry Banyash examined her on behalf of the Social Security Administration. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1519, 416.919 (establishing such consultative examinations for applicants seeking, respectively, disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income). His opinion was that the pain and weakness in her knee restricted her ability to walk, stand, climb stairs, crouch, and kneel. He believed she was capable of sedentary work. Given Ms. Beardsley's age and skills, though, a finding that she was capable of only sedentary work would have qualified her as disabled at the time of the ALJ's decision under the " grid" the agency uses for making that determination. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 201.12.
Ms. Beardsley's paper record then went for review by an-other agency physician, Dr. M. Brill. This doctor was more sanguine about Ms. Beardsley's capabilities. He judged her able to stand or walk for about six hours of an eight-hour workday, and he thought she could occasionally climb stairs, crouch, kneel, or bend down. He also thought she was not at all limited in her ability to " Push and/or pull (including operation of hand and/or foot controls)."
After an evidentiary hearing, the ALJ denied Ms. Beardsley's application for benefits. Applying the familiar five-step sequential inquiry for assessing disability, see 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a), 416.920(a), the ALJ determined at step one that Ms. Beardsley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity and at step two that she had a number of severe impairments: chronic knee pain, depression, personality disorder, anxiety, and obesity. These did not, however, automatically qualify her as disabled at step three under the " Listings" in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ concluded at step four that these impairments prevented Ms. Beardsley from performing her past work as a cashier or on factory assembly lines, so her claim was decided at step five, where the issue was whether she retained the ability to do other jobs available in the national economy. The ALJ found that she did, concluding that Ms. Beardsley could still perform a range of light work so long as she did not have to stand or walk for more than 30 minutes at a time or for more than six hours total in a workday. The ALJ therefore denied Ms. Beardsley's application for benefits. The district court affirmed, and this appeal followed.
If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court on judicial review must uphold that decision even if the court might have decided the case differently in the first instance. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is " such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971); Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 734-35 (7th Cir. 2006). To determine whether ...