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Blanchard v. Berryhill

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

April 17, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Susan E. Cox U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Barbara Blanchard (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI (“SSI”) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff has filed a brief, which this Court will construe as a motion for summary judgment [dkt. 14] and the Commissioner has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment [dkt. 21]. After reviewing the record, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. The ALJ's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed a SSI application on June 29, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2011. (R. 131-36.) Her initial application was denied on August 2, 2011 and again at the reconsideration stage on March 8, 2012. (R. 68-79.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 19, 2012, which was held on January 15, 2013. (R. 80, 38-65.) Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with her attorney. (R. 40.) Vocational Expert (“VE”), Julie Bose was also present and offered testimony. (R. 58.) On March 14, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for DIB. (R. 24-34.) The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied review on April 9, 2014, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the agency. (R. 12-17); Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 332 (7th Cir. 1994).)

         II. Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff was first assessed with abnormal glucose in January 2011, but was not diagnosed with diabetes mellitus (“diabetes”) until April 2011. (R. 204, 289.) She presented for several follow-up appointments after her initial diagnosis, but the characterization of her diabetes remained relatively unchanged until six months later. (R. 207, 212, 243, 249.) On August 29, 2011, Plaintiff presented to her doctor with complaints of bilateral pain in her feet. (R. 243.) She was treated with ibuprofen. (Id.) Beginning in April 2012, Plaintiff reported long painful nails and calluses of the foot during ambulation. (R. 342.) She was instructed to ice, rest, and elevate her feet, engage in stretching exercise, as well as take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (“NSAIDS”). (R. 344.) In June 2012, Plaintiff complained of numbness in her toe. (R. 337.) Then, in July 2012, Plaintiff reported bilateral plantar fasciitis[1], along with tenderness and pain. (R. 334.) Her treatment plan remained unchanged. (R. 336.) As of October 2012, Plaintiff reported that her foot pain had improved despite the fact that she had not engaged in her recommended exercises. (R. 360.) In November 2012, Plaintiff continued to report pain during ambulation; however, after examination, Plaintiff's doctor removed plantar fasciitis from her list of ongoing assessments. (R. 354-55; 362.)

         Plaintiff's record contains other objective medical evidence related to her impairments; however, those records are not pertinent to our present analysis.

         III. Testimony

         Plaintiff testified that, according to her doctors, all of her medical issues related to her feet can be attributed to her diabetes. (R. 49.) She stated that she cannot walk more than two blocks or stand for greater than thirty minutes due to her foot pain. (R. 50, 54.)

         Additionally, Plaintiff completed a Work History Report. (172-79.) In the report, Plaintiff indicated that she had held several positions which were all generally categorized as a home healthcare assistant. (R. 172.) Most recently, Plaintiff worked as a home care aid which required her to walk six to seven hours per day, frequently lift ten pounds, and engage in some standing, sitting, stooping, kneeling, and reaching. (R. 178.)

         A VE was also present and offered testimony. The ALJ first asked the VE to opine if Plaintiff had any past relevant work, as defined in the regulations. (R. 59.) The VE stated that Plaintiff had past relevant work as a home healthcare aide (DOT 355.674-014). (Id.) The VE reported that the position is listed as having a medium exertional level in the Dictionary of Occupation Titles, but Plaintiff's description of her duties suggested that she performed the job at a light exertional level. (Id.) The ALJ then asked the VE whether a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's same age, education, work history, and who could occasionally lift and carry fifty pounds, frequently carry twenty five pounds, stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day, and sit for six hours - i.e., could such an individual perform Plaintiff's past relevant work, either as actually or usually performed. (R. 60.) The VE opined that such an individual could perform Plaintiff's past relevant work as it was typically performed in the national economy. (Id.) The ALJ then asked the VE whether the same individual with the same characteristics (except now limited to occasionally carrying and lifting twenty pounds, frequently carrying and lifting ten pounds, never operating foot control bilaterally, never balancing, climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and only occasionally climbing stairs or ramps) would be able to perform Plaintiff's past relevant work. (R. 60.) The VE opined that such an individual could perform Plaintiff's past relevant work as the Plaintiff had indicated she performed it, but would be excluded from the work as it is normally performed. (R. 60-61.) Then, the ALJ asked if the hypothetical individual could still perform Plaintiff's past relevant work if they were off task for more than twenty percent of the work day. (R. 61.) The VE opined that the additional limitation would not only preclude past relevant work, but any work, altogether. (Id.)

         IV. ALJ Decision

         On May 14, 2013, the ALJ issued a written determination denying Plaintiff's SSI application. (R. 24-34.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since June 29, 2011, the application date. (R. 29.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, obesity, and hypertension. (Id.) He also determined that Plaintiff's plantar fasciitis did not constitute a severe impairment because it did not meet the duration requirements of the regulations. (R. 29.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. (R. 29-30.) At step four, the ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) and determined that Plaintiff could perform light work except that she could never operate foot controls bilaterally or climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. (R. 30.) He further limited ...

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