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Sittig v. Berryhill

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

May 15, 2017

LINDA M SITTIG, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan E. Cox United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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 opinion.

         STATEMENT

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff 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).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         As an 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.)

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         II. The ALJ improperly weighed the opinion evidence

         Plaintiff 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. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6).

         Here, 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.

         The 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 ...


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