United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Springfield Division
SUE E. MYERSCOUGH, District Judge.
On January 30, 2015, United States Magistrate Judge Tom Schanzle-Haskins issued a Report and Recommendation (d/e 16) recommending that this Court deny summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff, Thomas Sigite, and grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff filed Objections to the Report and Recommendation (d/e 17) and a supplement thereto (d/e 20). Defendant has filed a response to the objections (d/e 22).
Upon careful review of the record and the pleadings, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision was supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff's Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (d/e 17) are DENIED. This Court ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (d/e 16) in full. Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 8) is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (d/e 14) is GRANTED. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
I. LEGAL STANDARD
Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b)(3), this Court determines "de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Although this Court does not need to conduct a new hearing on the entire matter, the Court must give "fresh consideration to those issues to which specific objections have been made." 12 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller, & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3070.2 (2d ed. 1997); Wasserman v. Purdue Univ. ex rel. Jischke , 431 F.Supp.2d 911, 914 (N.D. Ind. 2006).
If no objection is made, or if only a partial objection is made, the Court reviews the unobjected to portions for clear error. Johnson v. Zema Sys. Corp. , 170 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 1999). This Court may "accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).
The Court adopts the factual findings made by the Magistrate Judge. To summarize, the ALJ applied the five-step analysis set forth in the Social Security Regulations (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) and found: (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since March 29, 2010, the application date (Step 1); (2) Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: status post-myocardial infarction; ischemic heart disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; status post closed head injury; affective disorder; and anxiety disorder (Step 2); (3) Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Step 3); (4) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) except that he is able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs as well as balance and stoop; he is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; he is unable to work near hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights; he needs to avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and other environmental irritants; he is limited to unskilled work that is routine and repetitive in nature; he is unable to perform work that is measured by production pace, but rather requires work that is goal-oriented or goal-directed; and he is able to have occasional work interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public (Step 4); and (5) Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy (Step 5). ALJ Decision, R. 15-21.
When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On judicial review, Magistrate Judge Schanzle-Haskins found the ALJ's decision supported by substantial evidence and recommended this Court affirm the decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff raises three issues in his Objections to the Report and Recommendation. First, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that the ALJ's functional capacity assessment is supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff argues that both the Magistrate Judge and the ALJ failed to discuss the opinion of Joseph Cools, PhD.
Next, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision at Step 5, that Plaintiff can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Finally, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff could perform the Cleaner/Housekeeping occupation. Because this Court's review of Plaintiff's objections is de novo, this Court reviews the ALJ's decision. See, e.g., Welsh v. Halter , 170 F.Supp.2d 807, 816 (N.D. Ill. 2001) (noting the claimant's objections to the Report and Recommendation and reviewing the ALJ's decision).
When the Appeals Council denies review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the Commissioner. Getch v. Astrue , 539 F.3d 473, 480 (7th Cir. 2008). This Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Skinner v. Astrue , 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate'" to support the decision. Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). In conducting this review, the Court considers the evidence that was before the ALJ. Wolfe v. Shalala , 997 F.2d 321, 322 n.3 (7th Cir. 1993) (finding that additional evidence submitted to the Appeals Council could not be used as a basis for finding reversible error where the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review based on that evidence).
This Court must accept the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and may not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Delgado v. Bowen , 782 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986). The Court will not reverse the credibility determinations of the ALJ unless the determinations lack any explanation or support in the record. Elder v. Astrue , 529 F.3d 408, 413-14 (7th Cir. 2008) ("It is only when the ALJ's determination lacks any explanation or support that we will declare it to be "patently wrong"... and deserving of reversal") (citations and quotations omitted). The ALJ must articulate at least minimally her analysis of all relevant evidence. Herron v. Shalala , 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994).
A. The Residual Functional Capacity Determination Was Supported by Substantial Evidence
Step 4 of the five-step analysis set forth in the Social Security Administration Regulations requires that the claimant not be able to return to his prior work considering his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. The residual functional capacity "is an assessment of what work-related activities the claimant can perform despite [his] limitations." Young v. Barnhart , 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).
At Step 4, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) except that Plaintiff is able to occasionally climb ramps and stairs as well as balance and stoop; he is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; he is unable to work near hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights; he needs to avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, fumes, odors, dust, gases, and other environmental irritants; he is limited to unskilled work that is routine and repetitive in nature; he is unable to perform work that is measured by production pace, but rather requires work that is goal-oriented or goal-directed; and he is able to have occasional work interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public. R. 18. Based on this residual functional capacity and the Vocational Expert's testimony, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. R. 19-20. Magistrate Judge Schanzle-Haskins found that the residual functional capacity determination was supported by substantial evidence.
In determining the residual functional capacity, the ALJ specifically relied on the opinion of medical consultant Donna Hudspeth, PsyD, and others. See ALJ Decision, R. 19. Dr. Hudspeth completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment for Plaintiff in August 2010. R. 624. As is relevant to the issue Plaintiff raises, Dr. Hudspeth found Plaintiff was "not significantly limited" in his "ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances." R. 624.
However, the record also contains the Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment completed by Dr. Cools, a medical consultant, in April 2009. R. 531. In Section I(B)(7) of the Assessment, Dr. Cools found Plaintiff was "moderately limited" in his "ability to perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances." R. 531.
Plaintiff argues that, despite Dr. Cools' assessment that Plaintiff had "moderate limitations" in his ability to perform work within a schedule, to be punctual, and to maintain regular attendance within customary work tolerances, the ALJ imposed no restrictions in the residual functional capacity on Plaintiff's ability to attend work within a schedule and to be punctual within customary tolerances. Objections, p. 5 (d/e 17). Moreover, the Vocational Expert testified at the hearing that missing just one or two days of work per month in the types of jobs the Vocational Expert described would eliminate those jobs. Id.; see also Tr. R. 75. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's failure to mention or analyze Dr. Cools' Assessment, which Plaintiff describe as highly pertinent evidence, warrants reversal. The Court disagrees.
"An ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence in the record but must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind her decision to deny benefits." Zurawski v. Halter , 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001). That is, the ALJ must provide an "accurate and logical bridge' between the evidence and the conclusion that the claimant is not disabled." Craft v. Astrue , 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008), quoting Young v. Barnhart , 362 F.3d 995, 1002 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ must provide an accurate and logical bridge so that the reviewing court can "assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford [the] claimant meaningful judicial review.'" Id. Moreover, an ALJ may not ignore the medical opinions of a state agency physician. See Social Security Ruling 96-6p: Policy Interpretation Ruling Titles II and XVI: Consideration of Administrative Findings of Fact by State Agency Medical and Psychological Consultants and Other Program Physicians and Psychologists at the Administrative Law Judge and Appeals Council Levels of Administrative Review; Medical Equivalence. However, the failure to mention Dr. Cools' Assessment is subject to harmless-error review and remand is not required if the Court can predict that the result on remand would be the same. Schomas v. Colvin , 732 F.3d 702, 706 (7th Cir. 2013) (finding harmless error where the ALJ did not explain why he gave controlling weight to one assessment over another); see also Newell v. Astrue , 869 F.Supp.2d 875, 886 (N.D. Ill. 2012) (finding that, even if the ALJ should have discussed the plaintiff's VA records, the failure to do so was harmless because the notes were not so different from the treatment notes the ALJ did consider to suggest that the ALJ would have assessed the plaintiff's credibility differently).
In this case, the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination was consistent with Dr. Cools' opinion, even though the ALJ did not specifically mention Dr. ...