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March v. Colvin

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

August 3, 2016

GAIL MARCH, Claimant,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.


          Jeffrey T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Gail March ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's applications for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") and for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 4.] Claimant has moved for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. [ECF No. 10.] The Commissioner has done likewise. [ECF No. 14.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's motion for summary judgment is granted, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is denied, The decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Social Security Administration ("the SSA") for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


         On June 28, 2012, Claimant filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2012. (R. 235-247.) The claims were denied initially in January, 2013, and upon reconsideration on May 17, 2013. (R. 176, 181-188.) On June 12, 2013, Claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ"). (R. 190-192.) The requested hearing was then held on January 14, 2014. (R. 56-114.) At that hearing, Claimant, who was represented by a non-attorney representative, appeared and testified. Id. Claimant's mother also appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert ("the VE") and Dr. Ellen Rozenfeld. Id.

         On February 28, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision. (R. 26-50.) In the decision, the ALJ went through the five-step sequential evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since his alleged onset date. (R. 28.) At step two, the ALJ found Claimant had the severe impairments of affective disorder, residuals of a cerebrovascular accident, seizures, status post-skull/head trauma, anxiety, history of speech impairment, and status post left humeral fracture. (R. 29.) At step three, the ALJ found Claimant did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). Id.

         Before step four, the ALJ concluded that Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to do light work. (R. 30.) The ALJ found that Clamant could (1) understand, remember, and carry out short, simple instructions and tasks, (2) make simple work related decisions, (3) use judgment, (4) perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable length or total number of rest breaks; (5) interact appropriately with supervisors to accept instructions or respond to criticism, (6) get along with coworkers/peers without being a distraction; (7) respond appropriately to occasional and routine changes in the work setting; and (8) travel independently and use public transportation. (R. 31.) The ALJ also determined that Claimant could frequently climb stairs and ramps. (R. 30.) The ALJ found that Claimant should never: (1) climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) engage in commercial driving; (3) be exposed to unprotected heights, dangerous moving machinery, and open dangerous conditions; and (4) perform face-paced assembly line type work. (R. 30-31). The ALJ further limited Claimant to jobs that involve only: occasional contact on a short, superficial basis with the public; short, brief contact with workers; and no joint projects/tasks with coworkers. (R. 31.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Claimant could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 47.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found Claimant to be disabled as of February 14, 2014 through the date of his decision. (R. 49.) The ALJ, however, also found Claimant not disabled prior to that date. Id. Specifically, the ALJ found that, prior to February 14, 2014, Claimant could have worked as a hand packer, sorter, or assembler. (R. 48-49.)

         Claimant sought review of the ALJ's decision. See R. 3-5. On September 19, 2014, the Social Security Appeals Council denied the request. Id. That denial made the ALJ's opinion the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. See also Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1097. Claimant now seeks review in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Baumhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).


         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final decision if the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). A claimant then may seek review of this final decision in the district court. Id. Judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in reaching his decision. Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). The reviewing court may enter a 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).

         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 (1971). A "mere scintilla" of evidence is not enough. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). Even when there is adequate evidence in the record to support the decision, however, the district court will not uphold the ALJ's findings if the ALJ did not "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion." Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). In other words, if the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot stand. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Though the substantial evidence standard is deferential, a reviewing court must "conduct a critical review of the evidence" before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Eichstadl v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). The court may not, however, "displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence . . . ." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Claimant argues that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record and improperly weighed the various medical opinions in the record. The Court finds that the ALJ committed the first error. Because this error requires remand and will necessitate that the ALJ reweigh the medical opinions after developing a Ml and lair record, the Court will not address whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinions in the record.

         A. The ALJ Failed To Adequately Develop The Record.

         An ALJ has a duty to develop a full and fair record. Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1098. At a minimum, this obligation demands that an ALJ ensure the record has "enough information to assess the claimant's RFC and to make a disability determination." Martin v. Astrue, 345 F.App'x 197, 201 (7th Cir. 2009). Where a claimant does not have counsel, however, this duty is "enhanced." Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1098. In such a case, "the ALJ must 'scrupulously and conscientiously [ ] probe into, inquire of, and explore for all the relevant facts."' Id. (quoting Thompson v. Sullivan,933 F.2d 581, 585-86 (7th Cir. 1991)). Therefore, while a pro se litigant "must furnish some medical evidence to support [her] claim, the ALJ is required to supplement the record, as necessary, by asking detailed questions, ordering additional examinations, and contacting treating physicians and medical sources to request additional ...

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