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Carson v. Colvin

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

November 21, 2014

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


IAIN D. JOHNSTON, Magistrate Judge.

Patricia Carson brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking reversal or remand of the decision denying her social security disability benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the case is remanded.


Ms. Carson was born on January 4, 1959 and was 53 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. She was five-feet, three-inches tall, and weighed as much as 229 pounds. R. 488.

In March 2010, she went to the emergency room complaining of right leg pain. R. 337. Doctors diagnosed her with radiculopathy and prescribed Tylenol # 3 and Toradol. R. 338. In early May 2010, she returned to the emergency room with severe right leg pain. R. 331. She was unable to move the leg without causing pain and felt numbness, weakness, and swelling. R. 333. Doctors diagnosed her with sciatica and prescribed Motrin, Valium, and Vicodin. R. 332.

In May and June 2010, Ms. Carson saw a chiropractor. R. 305. An examination revealed pain and tenderness to palpation in the right lower back and right buttock; muscle spasm in the right erector spinae; and subluxation at C1-C2, C4-C6, T2-T5, T7, L1-L5, and S2-S3. R. 306. She was unable to perform lumbar range of motion tests because of the pain. R. 307. She had a positive straight leg test and Braggard's sign, indicating involvement of the sciatic nerve. In June 2010, based on an MRI, doctors diagnosed a prominent right paracentral disc protrusion with resultant severe spinal stenosis and marked narrowing of the right lateral recess. R. 303.

In July 2010, Ms. Carson saw her treating physician, Dr. Adekola Ashaye, who noted that Ms. Carson had lost sensation on the lateral aspect of the right foot as well as on the third, fourth, and fifth toes. R. 381. In September 2010, Ms. Carson was prescribed Norco and Neurontin for the pain. R. 380. In December 2010, Ms. Carson told Dr. Ashaye that her pain had not improved despite the medication and that she was unable to lie down and had to sleep in a chair. R. 400. In April 2011, Dr. Ashaye examined Ms. Carson and noted pitting edema in both legs. R. 426. Her medications were modified, but the bilateral swelling below the knees continued. R. 488.

In January 2012, an MRI revealed bilateral facet arthropathy causing narrowing of the inferior neural foramen at L3-L4, decreased signal compatible disc desiccation and bilateral facet arthropathy at L4-L5, and a right paracentral disc protrusion extending into the neural foramen causing mass effect on the thecal sac and S1 nerve root at L5-S1. R. 493.

On February 17, 2012, the administrative law judge (ALJ) issued her ruling finding that Ms. Carson was not disabled. The ALJ found that Ms. Carson suffered from disc protrusion at L5-S1, obesity, and asthma. R. 20. At step three, the ALJ found that none of these impairments met or equaled a listed impairment (in particular listings 3.03 and 1.04). R. 21. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Carson retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with certain limitations. R. 21. Finally, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Carson retained the functional capacity to perform the jobs of office helper, mail clerk, and host. R. 26.


A reviewing court may enter judgment "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive. Id. Substantial evidence exists if there is enough evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to determine that the decision's conclusion is supportable. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399-401 (1971). Accordingly, the reviewing court cannot displace the decision by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). However, the Seventh Circuit has emphasized that review is not merely a rubber stamp. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (a "mere scintilla" is not substantial evidence). If the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion, then the court must remand the matter. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Moreover, a reviewing court must conduct a critical review of the evidence before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). Indeed, even when adequate record evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision will not be affirmed if the Commissioner does not build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008).


Ms. Carson argues that a remand is appropriate on numerous grounds. Specifically, the ALJ failed to explain why Ms. Carson's spinal impairment did not meet or equal a listed impairment; failed to consider her obesity; failed to explain why greater weight was given to the opinions of two state agency physicians over Ms. Carson's treating physician; erred with regard to Ms. Carson's use of a cane; misapprehended the durational requirement; failed to identify which of Ms. Carson's statements were credible; failed to analyze Ms. Carson's allegations of pain; improperly evaluated her receipt of unemployment benefits; and improperly relied on meaningless boilerplate language.

After reviewing these arguments, the Court finds that a remand is clearly warranted because of a failure to properly apply the treating physician rule. The treating physician rule is based on 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2). Under this section, a treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is supported by medical findings and consistent with other ...

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