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Cervantes v. Berryhill

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

May 8, 2017

ANA MARIE CERVANTES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          M. DAVID WEISMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Ana Marie Cervantes brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her applications for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision.

         Background

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on July 17, 2008. (R. 76.) The applications were initially denied on August 28, 2008, and again after reconsideration on November 24, 2008. (R. 76-79.) Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on August 17, 2010. (See R. 34-75.) On October 26, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's applications, a decision the Appeals Council declined to review. (R. 1-4, 16-27.)

         Plaintiff filed suit for administrative review, and on May 21, 2013, Magistrate Judge Finnegan reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. (R. 692-715.)

         The second hearing was held on June 9, 2014. (See R. 584-633.) On October 2, 2014, the ALJ again denied plaintiff's applications. (R. 558-72.) The Appeals Council declined review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner, reviewable under 42 U.S.C. 405(g). See Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Discussion

         The Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, affirming if it is supported by “substantial evidence in the record, ” i.e., “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “Although this standard is generous, it is not entirely uncritical, ” and the case must be remanded if the “decision lacks evidentiary support.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         Under the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The regulations prescribe a five-part sequential test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The Commissioner must consider whether: (1) the claimant has performed any substantial gainful activity during the period for which she claims disability; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) the claimant's impairment meets or equals any listed impairment; (4) the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant is able to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.; Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Zurawski, 245 F.3d at 886. If that burden is met, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2).

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 25, 2008, the alleged disability onset date. (R. 560.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the severe impairments of “diabetes mellitus, obesity, peripheral neuropathy, and a bipolar disorder.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. (R. 561.) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work but has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 419.967(b) except [that she] should be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with only occasional interaction with the public and co-workers in a work environment done at an average pace and without enhanced production rate requirements.” (R. 564.) At step five, the ALJ found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she] can perform.” (R. 571.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled. (R. 572.)

         In reaching this determination, the ALJ “assign[ed] only limited weight to the opinions of [plaintiff's] treating [psychiatrist], Dr. Brilliant” (R. 569), a decision that plaintiff says was erroneous. An ALJ should give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, if it “is well- supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).

         The ALJ said that he gave “limited weight” to Dr. Brilliant's opinions because:

[They] are inconsistent with and not well-supported by the overall record, including his own mental health treatment notes. On the one hand, Dr. Brilliant reported that [plaintiff] has been maintained on the same medication treatment regimen for a while, is relatively stable, that her psychotic symptoms are relatively under control, that she can be managed on an outpatient basis, and that she has had long intervals between hospital admissions. On the other hand, Dr. Brilliant reported that the [plaintiff's] daily functioning is significantly impaired, that she experiences a number of side effects from her medications, that she is sleepy during the day, but not able to sleep at night, and that she has difficult focusing and concentrating, following instructions and is easily distractible. However . . ., [plaintiff] routinely denied any side effects from her medications and reported fluctuations in her ability to concentrate but has indicated she could follow simple instructions, which the [ALJ] has accommodated by limiting her to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a work environment allowing for work at an average pace and without enhanced production rate requirements. Moreover, the record establishes that notwithstanding her reported ...

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