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Gale v. Berryhill

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

March 7, 2017

CHRISTOPHER L. GALE, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge.

         Claimant Christopher L. Gale ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decisions of Respondent Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for disability insurance under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security 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. 9.]

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, both Claimant and Respondent moved for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 18, 22.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted and Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied. The decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Claimant filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on February 13, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2013, (R. 12.) After an initial denial and a denial on reconsideration, Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing. (R. 110-11.) Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ") on August 18, 2014. (R. 29-76.) A Vocational Expert ("the VE") also testified, (R. 59-66.)

         On November 24, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's application for benefits based on a finding that, from his alleged onset date through the date of his hearing, he was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 9-28.) The opinion followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by Social Security Regulations. 20 CF.R. § 404.1520, As an initial matter, the ALJ noted Claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015. (R. 14.) At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 1, 2012. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found Claimant had the severe impairments of uncontrolled hypertension, renal failure, and obesity, (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CF.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CF.R, §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) ("the Listings") (R. 15.)

         Before step four, the ALJ determined Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") changed during the alleged period of disability and crafted two RFC determinations. The first RFC covered the time from October 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013. Under that RFC, Claimant had the RFC to perform light work as long as the work did not involve concentrated exposure to temperature extremes or extreme humidity, dangerous machinery, or heights. (R. 15.) The second RFC related to Claimant's ability to work on and after July 1, 2013. Under that RFC, Claimant could only perform sedentary work and could not stand or walk for more than two hours in an eight-hour working day. (R. 19.) The ALJ further limited Claimant to never using ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and infrequently using climbing ramps or stairs, balancing, stopping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ found Claimant could not work around dangerous moving machinery or unprotected heights, or engage in commercial driving. (R. 19-20.) Based on this RFC determination and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded at step four that Claimant was capable of performing his past relevant work as a garment sorter, as performed by Claimant and in the national economy. (R. 20.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found Claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 22.) The Social Security Appeals Council subsequently denied Claimant's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-7.) See 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).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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, 106-107 (2000). Under such circumstances, the district court reviews the decision of the ALJ. Id. Judicial review 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, 553 F.3d at 1097.

         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." Berger 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 Commissioner of Social Security 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." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Thus, judicial review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings. Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1097. 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. DISCUSSION

         Claimant asserts the ALJ made two errors. First, Claimant argues the ALJ erred in his assessment of Claimant's credibility. Second, Claimant argues the ALJ erred by rejecting the opinion of the treating physician and relying on the expert physician's opinion.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Properly Support His Assessment of the Treating Physician's ...


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