United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
SUSAN E. COX, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Christine Banks ("Plaintiff") appeals the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Defendant") decision to deny her Social Security disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. We hereby grant plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [dkt. 13], and deny Defendant's motion for summary judgment [dkt. 23]. The Administrative Law Judge's decision is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Plaintiff appeals the Defendant's decision to deny her Supplemental Social Security Income Disability Benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons outlined below, we grant Plaintiff's motion [dkt. 13], deny Defendant's motion [dkt. 23] and remand the Administrative Law Judge's decision for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Plaintiff claims that she has been disabled since February 7, 2011, due to degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, arthropathies of the lumbar spine and right leg, obesity, limited far acuity, alcohol abuse, cocaine abuse, and depression. Plaintiff applied for disability benefits on February 7, 2011. Her application was initially denied by the Social Security Administration on June 14, 2011; Plaintiff's reconsideration of the adverse ruling was also denied,  and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").
The hearing was held on September 5, 2012. At the hearing, the Plaintiff testified that she had been hit by a car in 2009. As a result, she had a knee surgery, and also began suffering from neck and back pain. Plaintiff stated that her knee had continued to trouble her following her surgery, and that her knee would become swollen and painful if she stood for half an hour or more. She also testified that the pain in her spine prevented her from "stay[ing] outside for a long time" and that she was constantly in pain. Plaintiff noted that she spends most of the day in bed because that is the most comfortable place for her, but that she had trouble sleeping, which required her to sleep sitting up with her legs propped up in a chair. Plaintiff begins feeling a burning sensation in her toes if she sits for more than half an hour, which causes her to have to stand up. According to the Plaintiff, she was scheduled to see a foot doctor following the hearing to have a cane prescribed to help her walk. Additionally, Plaintiff claimed that her hands were weak and that pain radiated from her spine down her arms.
Following her accident, Plaintiff attempted to work as a day laborer, but had to leave that job because she had swelling in her knees and her "hands and stuff kept giving out." Plaintiff lived with a friend, and testified that her 30-year-old daughter did Plaintiff's shopping and her hair. Plaintiff said she could shower and dress herself, but that she could not do any cooking, cleaning, or laundry.
Following the hearing, ALJ James D. Wascher determined, inter alia, that: 1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 7, 2011; 2) Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments in the form of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, arthropathies of the lumbar spine and right left, obesity, limited far acuity, alcohol abuse, cocaine abuse, and depression; 3) Plaintiff's impairments did not meet the severity of "the listings" in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; 4) Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC') to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), in that she could lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and could stand or walk for 6 hours in an eight-hour work day and sit up to 6 hours in an eight-hour workday; and 5) there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, given her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. Although, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause Plaintiff's symptoms, he believed that Plaintiff's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with" the ALJ's RFC assessment.
In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ relied on the opinion of State agency medical consultant Dr. Richard Bilinsky, M.D., who opined that Plaintiff could "lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 20 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk about 6 hours and sit about 6 hours per 8-hour workday; and perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling." The ALJ accorded this opinion "some weight because of [Dr. Bilinsky's] familiarity both with the longitudinal record in this case as it existed at the time [he] rendered [his] opinions, and with the Administration's regulatory programs." Meanwhile, the Plaintiff's treating physician, David Stewart, M.D., stated that Plaintiff could carry or lift 5 pounds, stand or walk for 1 to 2 hours, and that the amount of time Plaintiff could sit would depend on her symptoms. The Plaintiff testified that she had treated with Dr. Stewart for 7 years at the time of her hearing. However, the ALJ "accord[ed] this opinion little weight because it is not consistent with the medical records and is contradicted by the opinions of the State agency consultants, to whose opinion the undersigned gives greater weight."
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The ALJ's decision must be upheld if it follows the administrative procedure for determining whether the plaintiff is disabled as set forth in the Act,  if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if it is free of legal error. Substantial evidence is "relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Although we review the ALJ's decision deferentially, she must nevertheless build a "logical bridge" between the evidence and her conclusion. A "minimal articulat[ion] of her justification" is enough.
II. THE ALJ FAILED TO ARTICULATE HIS REASONS FOR ACCORDING PLAINTIFF'S TREATING PHYSICIAN'S OPINION LITTLE WEIGHT.
The "treating physician" rule requires that an ALJ give controlling weight to the medical opinion of a treating physician if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence. If an ALJ does not accord controlling weight to the ALJ's opinion, the ALJ must evaluate six criteria in deciding how much weight to afford a medical opinion: (1) the nature and duration of the examining relationship; (2) the length and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the extent to which medical evidence supports the opinion; (4) the degree to which the opinion is consistent with the entire record; (5) the physician's specialization if applicable; and (6) other factors ...