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Berry v. Colvin

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

December 12, 2014

SUSIE D. BERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SAMUEL DER-YEGHIAYAN, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Susie D. Berry's (Berry) 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, Berry's motion is granted in part, and this matter is remanded to SSA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

In November 2010, Berry filed for Disability Benefits Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. The claims were denied by SSA and denied again upon a request for reconsideration. Berry then appeared in a hearing (Hearing) before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and on October 23, 2012, the ALJ entered a decision against Berry. On November 5, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review, and on January 8, 2014, Berry filed the instant appeal. Berry 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. 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, Berry argues: (1) that the ALJ erred in making credibility determinations as to Berry's alleged pain and impairments, and (2) that the ALJ erred in determining Berry's RFC.

I. Credibility Determinations

Berry contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating the credibility of Berry as to her impairments and pain. Credibility assessments made by an ALJ are given "special, but not unlimited, deference." Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 696 (7th Cir. 2012)(stating that "[t]he ALJ must consider a number of factors imposed by regulation, ... and must support credibility findings with evidence in the record"); see also Pierce v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 1046, 1050 (7th Cir. 2014)(stating that "[a]n ALJ may not discount a claimant's credibility just because her claims of pain are unsupported by significant physical and diagnostic examination results").

A. Headaches

Berry contends that the ALJ erred in discounting Berry's claims of severe headaches. The ALJ concluded that although Berry "alleged that she suffered from migraine headaches, " the record "reflects no consistent treatment for this alleged impairment." (AR 25). The ALJ also concluded that "[t]he claimant has not generally received the type of medical treatment one would expect for a totally disabled individual." (AR 25). There is ample evidence in the record showing that Berry sought treatment for severe headaches. For example, in 2010 she was treated for "Headache: secondary to cervicogenic or migraine or tension" and the record includes medical records that indicate a "history of migraine[s]." (AR 254-260). Other medical records also indicate that Berry had a "complaint of headaches." (AR 575). The record further shows that Berry had CT scans in 2010 and 2011, which Berry contends were performed to investigate the cause of her severe headaches. (AR 326, 410, 587). The ALJ also noted himself in referencing the record that in 2010, Berry was hospitalized for three days, in part due to a severe headache. (AR 26). An ALJ cannot "disregard an applicant's subjective complaints of pain simply because they are not fully supported by objective medical evidence, " but "a discrepancy between the degree of pain claimed by the applicant and that suggested by medical records is probative of exaggeration." Sienkiewicz v. Barnhart, 409 F.3d 798, 804 (7th Cir. 2005). In the instant action, the ALJ failed to explain how the record reflects no consistent treatment for severe headaches, and the ALJ failed to point to any medical evidence that would contradict Berry's assertions as to severe migraines. The ALJ also failed to explain why he was discounting the evidence in the record that corroborated Berry's claims as to severe headaches. The ALJ thus failed to ...


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