United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. Cox United States Magistrate Judge.
Linda Sitting (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review
of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title XVI of the
Social Security Act. The Court grants the Plaintiff's
motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 14), and denies the
Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 15). The
Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands
the case for further proceedings consistent with this
filed a DIB application on January 16, 2013, alleging a
disability onset date of August 31, 2007. (R. 65.) Her
initial application was denied on May 8, 2013, and again at
the reconsideration stage on January 28, 2014. (R. 65, 84.)
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) on February 6, 2014, and the
hearing was scheduled on November 12, 2014. (R. 96, 105.) At
the hearing, Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel,
appeared and testified. (R. 31-64.) Vocational expert
(“VE”) Richard Fisher also appeared and offered
testimony. (R. 31, 51-62.) On January 21, 2015, the ALJ
issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's
applications for DIB benefits. (R. 15-26.) Plaintiff
requested review of the ALJ's decision at the Appeals
Council and included supplemental evidence in her submission.
(R. 204-211, 438-39.) The Appeals Council denied her
petition, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of
the Commissioner. (R. at 1-6, 204, 438-39.) Plaintiff then
filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§
405(g) and 1383(c).
The ALJ's Decision
initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured
status requirements of the Social Security Act through
December 31, 2016. (R. 17.) Applying the five-step sequential
evaluation process pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, the
ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset
date of August 31, 2007. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of
degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine;
status-post C5-6 cervical fusion (January 2009) and L5-S1
lumbar fusion (November 2009). (Id.) At step three,
the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet
the severity requirements of the listing in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 18.) Before step four, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of
light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c). (R. 18.) The ALJ
also found that Plaintiff's RFC was further limited to
lifting, carrying, pushing and/ or pulling up to twenty
pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; standing and/
or walking up to two hours in an eight-hour day, sitting up
to six hours in an eight-hour day, and occasionally stooping
and climbing ramps and stairs. (R. 18.) At step four, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff is capable of performing past
relevant work a secretary and as a loan originator as those
jobs are performed in the national economy. (R. 25-26.) Given
these findings, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was disabled
as defined in the Social Security Act from August 31, 2007
through the date of the ALJ's decision on January 21,
2015. (R. 26.)
Standard of Review
ALJ's decision must be upheld if it follows the
administrative procedure for determining whether the
plaintiff is disabled as set forth in the Act, 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a), if it is supported
by substantial evidence, and if it is free of legal error. 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “relevant
evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). Although
we review the ALJ's decision deferentially, she must
nevertheless build a “logical bridge” between the
evidence and her conclusion. Moore v. Colvin, 743
F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014). A “minimal[ ]
articulat[ion] of her justification” is enough.
Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th Cir. 2008).
The ALJ improperly weighed the opinion evidence
argues that the ALJ erred by not addressing or assigning
weight to the opinion of state agency medical consultant
Richard Bilinsky, M.D. which was more limiting than the
ALJ's ultimate RFC assessment. ALJs “must consider
all medical opinions in the record.” Roddy v.
Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013); see
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) (instructing ALJ's to
“evaluate every medical opinion” in the record).
Unless an ALJ affords controlling weight to the medical
opinion of a treating source, the regulations direct the ALJ
to consider all of the following factors when deciding what
weight to give “any medical opinion, ” including:
(1) the examining relationship; (2) the treatment
relationship; (3) the extent to which medical evidence
supports the opinion; (4) the degree to which the opinion is
consistent with the entire record; (5) the physician's
specialization if applicable; and (6) other factors which
validate or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §
the ALJ did not give controlling weight to any treating
physician's opinion and therefore was required to address
the relevant factors in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) in
deciding what weight to give the opinions of the state agency
medical and psychological consultants. While the ALJ
discussed his weighing of the opinion of state agency
consultant James Hinchen, M.D. at the reconsideration level,
he ignored the opinion of earlier state agency consultant Dr.
Bilinsky without giving any explanation for the omission.
This is significant because Dr. Bilinsky's opinion was
more restrictive than that of Dr. Hinchen. Dr. Bilinsky
opined that Plaintiff could sit only two hours, in an
eight-hour workday, (R. 69-70), whereas, Dr. Hinchen
concluded that Plaintiff was less restricted and could sit
for a total of six hours, in an eight-hour workday. (R. 79.)
The ALJ adopted the findings of Dr. Hinchen in his RFC and in
his hypothetical to the VE limiting Plaintiff to sitting a
total of six hours, in an eight-hour workday. While the ALJ
does not need to discuss every single piece of evidence, he
is required to “build a logical bridge from evidence to
conclusion.” Vilano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558,
562 (7th Cir.2009). Accordingly, the ALJ may not simply
ignore a line of evidence, but must “confront the
evidence that does not support his conclusion and explain why
it was rejected.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374
F.3d 470, 474 (7th Cir.2004). Without any discussion of Dr.
Bilinsky's opinion evidence, the ALJ failed to build a
logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.
Commissioner does not directly address the ALJ's failure
to discuss Dr. Bilinsky's opinion evidence in her
response. The Commissioner merely asserts that the ALJ found
“the more recent” state agency opinion of Dr.
Hinchen less restrictive than the opinion of treating
neurosurgeon Dr. Citcow and therefore gave it
“significant weight.” (Def.'s Mem. at 8.) If
the Commissioner is implying that the ALJ ignored Dr.
Bilinsky's opinion because it was less recent than the
opinion of Dr. Hinchen, this argument fails for two reasons.
First, this is not an argument made by the ALJ, and is thus
an impermissible post hoc rationalization. Meuser v.
Colvin, 838 F.3d 905, 911 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing
SEC v. Chenery Corp.,318 U.S. 80, 87-88 (1943));
Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 648 (7th Cir. 2012)
(“Under the Chenery doctrine, the Commissioner's
lawyers cannot defend the agency's decision on grounds
that the agency itself did not embrace.”). Since the
ALJ did not give any reason at all for rejecting Dr.
Bilinsky's opinion, his decision cannot be upheld based
upon speculation as to his reasons. Second, and more
importantly, even if the ALJ dismissed Dr. Bilinsky's
opinion because it was not as recent as that of Dr. Hinchen,
the ALJ still did not address any of the requisite factors
set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) such as
supportability and consistency to determine what weight to
give Dr. Bilinsky's opinion. See Simila v.
Astrue, 573 F.3d 503 (7th Cir. 2009) (“an ALJ is
required to ...