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Miller v. Colvin

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

September 12, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.


          Jeffrey T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge.

         Claimant Brenda Miller ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") 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. 7.] The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. [ECF Nos. 17, 24.] For the following reasons, Claimant's motion is granted and the Commissioner's motion is denied. This matter is remanded to the Social Security Administration ("the SSA") for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


         On September 1, 2011, Claimant filed her DIB and SSI applications, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2011, due to arthritis, fibromyalgia ("FMS"), osteoarthritis, cysts, anxiety, ulcers, short attention span, and memory issues. (R. 137-50, 176, 179-87.) After an initial denial on November 21, 2011, and a denial on reconsideration on May 17, 2012, Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ") on July 13, 2012. (R. 66-69, 92-93.) Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing, which took place on May 31, 2013. (R. 31-65.) A Vocational Expert ("the VE") also testified at the hearing. Id.

         On August 23, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's applications and finding that she was not disabled under the Act. (R. 11-25.) As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Claimant met the insured status requirement of the Act through June 30, 2013. (R, 13.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Claimant had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity ("SGA") since her alleged onset date of May 1, 2011. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of FMS, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. (R. 14.) At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x I. (R. 19.)

         Before step four, the ALJ determined that Claimant had the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except that she can occasionally lift and carry 20 pounds and frequently 10 pounds, can sit, stand, and walk for six hours during an eight-hour workday with normal or customary breaks, can occasionally push and pull 20 pounds and frequently 10 pounds, occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, can understand and remember detailed three to four step instructions but not complex instructions, has the attention and concentration to carry out a variety of detailed instructions with adequate persistence and pace, can frequently interact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public, and can adapt to typical changes in the workplace. (R. 21.) In so finding, the ALJ determined that Claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely credible. (R. 22.) The ALJ also afforded significant weight to the medical opinions of both medical consultants, Dr. Michael Cremerius and Dr. Richard Bilinsky. (R. 23-24.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. 24.)

         At the final step, the ALJ considered Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, and concluded that she could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as rental clerk, sales attendant, and housekeeper, (R. 25.) On December 15, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-3.) That denial made the ALJ's opinion the final decision of the Commissioner. Id.; see also Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F, 3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). Claimant now seeks review in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).


         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final decision if the Appeals Council ("AC") denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the 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).

         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 findings will not be upheld if the ALJ does not "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion." Merger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). 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).

         The "findings of the Social Security Commissioner as to any fact if supported by substantial evidence shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Though the standard of review is deferential, 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). It may not, however, "displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008); Jens v. Bamhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir, 2003). 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), III. ANALYSIS

         In challenging the ALJ's determination, Claimant proffers three arguments. First, Claimant argues that the ALJ erred in rendering her credibility determination. Next, Claimant contends that the ALJ improperly assessed her RFC. Finally, Claimant argues that the ALJ ignored favorable VE testimony. The Court finds that the ALJ committed the first error. Because this error requires remand and will necessitate that the ALJ reconsider the RFC determination and possibly obtain new testimony from the VE, the Court will not address Claimant's second and third arguments, A. Credibility Determination

         Since the ALJ issued his decision in this case, the SSA issued new guidance on how the agency assesses the effects of a claimant's alleged symptoms. SSR 96-7p and its focus on "credibility" has been superseded by SSR 16-3p to "clarify that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of the individual's character." SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *1; see also Cole v. Colvin, ___ F.3d ___, 2016 WL 3997246, at *1 (7th Cir. July 26, 2016) ("The change in wording is meant to clarify that [ALJs] aren't in the business of impeaching claimants' character; obviously [ALJs] will continue to assess the credibility of pain assertions by applicants, especially as such assertions often cannot be either credited or rejected on the basis of medical evidence."). Because SSR 16-3p is simply a clarification of the Administration's interpretation of existing law, rather than a change to it, this new ruling applies to Claimant's argument in this case. See Quails v. Colvin, No. 14 CV 2526, 2016 WL 1392320, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 8, 2016); Hagberg v. Colvin, No. 14 C 887, 2016 WL 1660493, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 27, 2016).

         As before, under SSR 16-3p, an ALJ must carefully consider the entire record and evaluate the "intensity and persistence of an individual's symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms affect the individual's ability to do basic work activities." SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *2, An ALJ need not mention every piece of evidence in her opinion. See Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). But an ALJ is obligated to consider all relevant medical evidence and may not cherry-pick facts by ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding. Goble v. Astrue, 385 Fed.Appx. 588, 593 (7th Cir. 2010). Moreover, an ALJ "may not disregard subjective complaints merely because they are not fully supported by objective medical . evidence." Knight v. Chater,55 F.3d 309, 314 (7th ...

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