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Maiolo v. Colvin

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

January 5, 2017

RALPH MAIOLO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUSAN E. COX U.S MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Ralph Maiolo (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying his Social Security disability benefits under Title II (“DIB”) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment [13] and the Commissioner has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment [18]. After reviewing the record, the court grants Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed a DIB application on January 17, 2014 alleging a disability onset date of November 11, 2013 due to coronary artery disease, atrial fibrillation, dyslipidemia, hypertension-benign, benign prostatic hypertrophy, and high blood pressure. (R. 68, 228-31.) His initial application was denied on April 14, 2014, and again at the reconsideration stage on December 19, 2014. (R. 75, 91.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 21, 2015, and the hearing was scheduled on July 23, 2015. (R. 28-67, 107.) Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with his attorney. (R. 28-67.) A medical expert (“ME”) and vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared and offered testimony. (Id.) On August 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for DIB benefits. (R. 10-22.) The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied review October 14, 2015, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005). (R. 1-3; Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 332 (7th Cir. 1994).

         II. ALJ Decision

         On August 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written determination denying Plaintiff's DIB application. (R. 10-22.) As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2016. (R. 15.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since his alleged onset date of November 11, 2013. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of obesity, hypertension with LVH, atrial arrhythmias, sleep apnea, and sclerotic changes of the heart valve. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. (R. 25.) Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work. (Id.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's RFC was further limited to no exposure to humidity, wetness, dust, odors, fumes, pulmonary irritants, extreme cold, or extreme heat. (Id.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work. (R. 20.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. 21.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could work as a mail clerk, office helper, and small parts assembler. (Id.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 21-22)

         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, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a), if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if it is free of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Although we review the ALJ's decision deferentially, she must nevertheless build a “logical bridge” between the evidence and her conclusion. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014). A “minimal[ ] articulat[ion] of her justification” is enough. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th Cir. 2008).

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ made three errors. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly analyzed whether het met or equaled a listing. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ incorrectly determined his credibility. Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in his RFC finding. The Court finds that the ALJ's RFC assessment was not supported by substantial evidence. Because this conclusion requires reversal, the alleged credibility error need not be addressed at this time.

         A. The ALJ's Step Two & Three Determinations Were Supported by Substantial Evidence

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly analyzed whether he met or equaled a listing. (Pl.'s Mem. at 9.) Plaintiff contends that the ME gave contradictory testimony regarding whether or not his left ventricle met listing level, and that the ALJ was required to discuss the contradiction. (Id.) The Commissioner responds that the ALJ reasonably relied on the testifying ME's opinion in determining that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 4.02. (Def.'s Mem. at 2.) The Commissioner contends that Plaintiff misread the ME's testimony and the Listing because although the ME testified that Plaintiff's enlarged atrium met Listing 4.02(A), Plaintiff failed to meet Listing 4.02(B) and the ME ultimately concluded Plaintiff did not meet Listing 4.02. (Def.'s Mem. at 3.) At step two, an ALJ must determine the medical severity of a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c); SSR 96-3p. Listing 4.02 is chronic heart failure. The required level of severity for this impairment is met when the requirements in both “A” and “B” are satisfied. The Commissioner's argument is persuasive. Plaintiff misread both the ME's testimony and the Listing. The ME's testimony never equated Plaintiff's impairment to listing level. The ME testified that Plaintiff's echocardiogram showed that his left atrium was dilated to 4 centimeters, and that Plaintiff was below listing level. (R. 47.) Further, 4.02(A) explicitly states that an enlarged left atrium must be greater than or equal to 4.5 cm, with normal or elevated ejection fraction during a period of stability, which is .5 centimeters greater than the size of Plaintiff's left atrium. (R. 438.) Therefore, it appears that Plaintiff's impairments did not singly meet listing level 4.02.

         Next, Plaintiff contends that the ME failed to consider his atrial fibrillation and mitral valve disease in combination. (Pl.'s Mem. at 10.) The Commissioner responds that just because the ME canvassed Plaintiff's impairments one by one does not mean that either the ME or the ALJ failed to consider the combined impact of the impairments. (Def. Mem. at 3.) At step three, an ALJ must consider whether a claimant's impairments meet or medically equal a listed impairment, either singly or in combination. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). An ALJ should identify the Listing by name and offer more than a perfunctory discussion. Barnett v. Barnhart,381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ must also obtain the opinion of a medical expert on the issue. (Id.) In this case, there is nothing in the record or peculiar about the ME's testimony that shows the ME did not consider Plaintiff's impairments in combination, when assessing whether Plaintiff met or equaled a listing. Further, Plaintiff does not provide this Court any guidance on what particular Listing his impairments may have equaled. The Court is not concluding that ...


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