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Harper v. Berryhill

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

April 3, 2017

ORA HARPER Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner Social Security Defendant.


          Jeffrey T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Ora Harper (“Claimant”) seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying Claimant's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and 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. 6.]

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, Claimant and the Commissioner have both moved for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 12, 19.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion is denied. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


         Claimant filed an application for DIB on October 22, 2012, and for SSI on October 24, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of September 28, 2012. (R. 168-77.) After an initial denial and a denial on reconsideration, Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing on June 25, 2013. (R. 116-21.) Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 22, 2014. No medical expert was present, though a vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared and testified. (R. 26-52.)

         On November 24, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's application for SSI and DIB based on the finding that she was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 10-18.) Following the familiar five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found at step one that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (R. 12.) Claimant's severe impairments at step two were bilateral knee arthralgia, status post left knee surgery and post right shoulder surgery, right shoulder arthralgia, and obesity. (R. 12.) Her non-severe impairments included depression and anxiety, status post left ankle sprain, status post plantar fibroma excision, glaucoma, blepharitis (eyelid inflammation), and left elbow arthralgia. (R. 13.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that none of these impairments met or medically equaled listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint) either singly or in combination. (R. 14-15.)

         Before moving to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's testimony about the severity and frequency of her symptoms was not fully credible. (R. 17.) The ALJ also found that the opinions of the state-agency experts Dr. David Bitzer and Dr. Ernst Bone were entitled to some but not full weight. Based on these non-examining reports and the objective medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as long as several non-exertional restrictions were present. Claimant can occasionally balance with a cane and can frequently climb ramps and stairs, as well as frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Claimant must never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (R. 15.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Claimant could perform her past relevant work as an administrative assistant. Accordingly, the ALJ did not proceed to step five and concluded that Claimant was not disabled. (R. 18.) 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. 1-4.) 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 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 standard 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.” 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 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).


         Claimant asserts that the ALJ erred on two grounds. First, she argues that the ALJ's credibility determination is flawed. Second, Claimant contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment does not adequately account for the full extent of her limitations. For the reasons discussed below, the Court agrees that remand is required on both issues.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Properly Evaluate ...

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