United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Honorable Thomas M. Durkin United States District Judge.
Derengowski brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for judicial review of the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying
Derengowski's claim for supplemental security income and
disability insurance benefits based on a number of alleged
disabilities. Derengowski seeks an award of benefits, or in
the alternative remand to the Commissioner. For the following
reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and
remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion
review of a final decision of the Social Security
Administration is generally deferential. The Social Security
Act requires the court to sustain the administrative law
judge's (“ALJ”) findings if they are
supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). Substantial evidence means “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The court should
review the entire administrative record, but must “not
reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of
credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the
[ALJ].” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869
(7th Cir. 2000). “However, this does not mean that [the
court] will simply rubber-stamp the [ALJ's] decision
without a critical review of the evidence.”
Id. A decision may be reversed if the ALJ's
findings “are not supported by substantial evidence or
if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard.”
Id. In addition, the court will reverse if the ALJ
does not “explain his analysis of the evidence with
enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate
review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart,
425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). “Although a written
evaluation of each piece of evidence or testimony is not
required, neither may the ALJ select and discuss only that
evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion.”
Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994);
see Scrogham v. Colvin, 765 F.3d 685, 698 (7th Cir.
2014) (“This ‘sound-bite' approach to record
evaluation is an impermissible methodology for evaluating the
evidence.”). Additionally, the ALJ “has a duty to
fully develop the record before drawing any conclusions,
” Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 634 (7th
Cir. 2007), and deference in review is “lessened . . .
where the ALJ's findings rest on an error of fact or
logic.” Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806
(7th Cir. 2014). In oft-quoted words, the Seventh Circuit has
said that the ALJ “must build an accurate and logical
bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.”
Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. When the ALJ has
satisfied these requirements, the responsibility for deciding
whether the claimant is disabled falls on the Social Security
Administration, and, if “conflicting evidence allows
reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is
disabled, ” the ALJ's decision must be affirmed.
Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178, 181 (7th Cir. 1990).
order to determine whether an individual is disabled, an ALJ
must follow the five-step analysis provided by 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, if the ALJ
determines that the claimant is “doing substantial
gainful activity, ” then the claimant is not disabled
and no further analysis is necessary. If the claimant is not
engaged in gainful activity, at step two, the ALJ
must determine whether the claimant has a
“severe” impairment or combination of
impairments. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has such a
severe impairment, and the impairment is one provided for in
the Social Security regulation listings, then at step
three, the ALJ must find that the claimant is disabled.
If the ALJ finds that the impairment is not in the listings,
then at step four, the ALJ must assess the
“residual functional capacity”
(“RFC”) the claimant continues to possess despite
the claimant's impairment. If the claimant's RFC
enables the claimant to continue his or her “past
relevant work, ” then the ALJ must find that the
claimant is not disabled. But if the claimant cannot perform
past relevant work, at step five, the ALJ must
determine whether the claimant “can make an adjustment
to other work.” If the claimant cannot make such an
adjustment, then the claimant is disabled.
the ALJ found that Derengowski has not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since September 1, 2010 (step one), and has
the following severe impairments: pancreatitis; diabetes;
neuropathy; arthritis; cirrhosis; alcohol dependence;
depression and anxiety (step two). R. 6-3 at 19. Derengowski
does not dispute these findings, or the ALJ's finding
that Derengowski “does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the
severity of one of the listed impairments” (step
three). Id. Rather, Derengowski challenges the
ALJ's finding that she is not disabled because she
“has the residual functional capacity
[“RFC”] to perform light work, ” with
certain limitations (step four), which would enable her to
adjust to other work that is available in the national
economy (step five). Id. at 27. Derengowski contends
that the ALJ's RFC determination “is not supported
by substantial evidence” for two reasons: (1) the ALJ
erroneously analyzed the testimony of the two medical experts
retained by the Commissioner who testified at the hearing-Dr.
Carl Leigh, M.D., and Dr. Ellen Rozenfeld, Psy. D.; and (2)
the ALJ erroneously found that Derengowski's testimony
regarding her symptoms was “not entirely
credible.” See R. 9 at 1. Derengowski argues
that the experts' testimony and her own testimony
demonstrate that her RFC is for “sedentary work.”
Derengowski argues further that a finding that her RFC is for
“sedentary work” would compel a finding that she
is disabled pursuant to 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P,
App'x 2, Rule 201.09.
Dr. Carl Leigh, M.D.
Carl Leigh, M.D., testified as a medical expert at
Derengowski's hearing. Dr. Leigh's testimony
consisted of a review of the records of the three
consultative medical examinations of Derengowski performed by
doctors retained by the Commissioner over the course of the
three-year application process leading up to the hearing. Dr.
Leigh testified that a comparison of the three examination
reports demonstrated that Derengowski's condition had
deteriorated over that time period.
Leigh noted that the third examination report-prepared by Dr.
Roopa Karri, M.D.-included an opinion regarding the
activities in which Derengowski was able to engage, which is
an analysis relevant to the ALJ's RFC determination. Dr.
Leigh testified that he disagreed with Dr. Karri's
opinion of Derengowski's abilities, because it was
very restrictive and the medical evidence of record does not
support all those restrictions. For example, the examiner
indicated [Derengowski] could climb ramps or stairs
occasionally, but she could never stoop or bend, could never
kneel, could never crouch, could never crawl. If she were
unable to bend or stoop, she wouldn't be able to sit as
she has been for the past hour here in the room.
interpreted Dr. Leigh's testimony to indicate that
Derengowski could perform “light work” prior to
March 11, 2013, but only “sedentary work” from
that date forward. R. 6-3 at 32. The ALJ, however, ultimately
rejected the recommendation of “sedentary work”
he attributed to Dr. Leigh, and instead found that
Derengowski's RFC was for ...