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Derengowski v. Berryhill

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

April 10, 2017

Darlene Derengowski, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Honorable Thomas M. Durkin United States District Judge.

         Darlene 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 and order.

         Legal Standard

         Judicial 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).


         In 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.

         Here, 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.

         I. Opinion Evidence

         A. Dr. Carl Leigh, M.D.

         Dr. 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.

         Dr. 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.

         R. 6-3 at 80.

         The ALJ 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 ...

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