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Criss v. Berryhill

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

March 8, 2017

LAURA CRISS, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 1 Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey T. Gilbert Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Laura Criss ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("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. 6.] Claimant has moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 for summary judgment. [ECF No. 11.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's motion for summary judgement is granted. 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

         On February 8, 2011, Claimant filed an application for DIB alleging a disability onset date of November 1, 2006. (R. 339-42.) The claim was denied initially on April 13, 2011, upon 'Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 25(d), we have substituted Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill as the named defendant, reconsideration on August 4, 2011, and after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALT") in a decision dated September 28, 2012. (R, 105-37, 156-176, 181-85, 189-92.) On November 20, 2012, Claimant requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision and on February 26, 2014 the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded Claimant's case to an ALJ. (R. 177-79, 286-89.) On August 19, 2014, another hearing was held at which Claimant, who was represented by counsel, testified. (R. 44-104.) A medical expert (the "ME") and a vocational expert (the "VE") also appeared and testified. (Id.)

         On September 18, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision. (R. 24-36.) In the decision, the ALJ went through the five-step sequential evaluation process and ultimately found Claimant not disabled under the Act. (R. 36.) At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since November 1, 2006, the alleged onset date. (R. 26.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of bronchial asthma and allergic rhinitis. (R. 27.) She concluded that Claimant's mental impairment of a history of anxiety and her osteoporosis were non-severe. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). (R. 29.)

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at a light exertional level, but was limited to never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold or heat, humidity, and pulmonary irritants. (Id.) She also found that Claimant was to work in a controlled environment. (Id.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant could perform. (R, 28.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Claimant could work as a cashier, counter clerk, and mail clerk. (R. 35.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Act. (R. 36.)

         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, 106-07 (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 her 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." 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, or by making independent credibility determinations." 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. ANALYSIS

         On remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to: (1) give further consideration to Claimant's RFC and cite specific references to the record to support her assessment of Claimant's limitations, and (2) obtain supplemental evidence from the VE to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the occupational base. (R. 179.) The Appeals Council further instructed the ALJ to first identify and resolve any conflicts between the testimony of the VE and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (SCO) before she relied on the supplemental evidence from the VE. (Id.)

         Claimant asserts that the ALJ's decision must be reversed because she; (1) failed to provide appropriate rationale in support of her RFC determination and omitted the limitations contained in the previous ALJ's RFC assessment; (2) failed to properly assess the VE's testimony and to identify and resolve any conflicts between the VE's testimony and the occupational publications; (3) improperly assessed Claimant's credibility; and (4) violated the Social Security Regulations when she assigned little weight to the medical opinions of Claimant's long time treating physician. The Court finds that the ALJ erred because she failed to articulate the weight she accorded to ...


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