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Robinson v. Berryhill

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

May 19, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          MARY M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Dolores M. Robinson (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Robinson”) seeks review o the final decision of Respondent Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Socia Security (“the Commissioner”), [1] denying Plaintiff's application for disabilit insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 (Dkts. 12, 18).[2] For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion for summar judgment is GRANTED and the Commissioner's is DENIED. The decision of th Commissioner is REVERSED, and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


         This case is on appeal to the district court for the second time. On May 29, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application for benefits based on a finding that she was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). On May 21, 2014, Judge Cox issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order (hereafter, the “May 2014 Order”) remanding the ALJ's decision for further proceedings. (R. at 617-40). Judge Cox concluded that the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination as to Ms. Robinson's mental ability was supported by substantial evidence, but remand was proper “for further assessment of Ms. Robinson's credibility in light of her need to elevate her feet and her testimony regarding fatigue, and for reconsideration of Ms. Robinson's RFC to the extent that it is impacted by the ALJ's credibility determination.” (Id. at 638-40).

         On remand, the Social Security Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to offer Plaintiff a hearing and “take any further action needed to complete the administrative record.” (Id. at 648). The ALJ noted that she was directed to give “further consideration only for credibility of two allegations: (1) claimant's testimony that she needed to elevate her legs; and (2) claimant's complaints of fatigue.” (Id. at 523). On November 13, 2014, the ALJ held a new hearing with Ms. Robinson, Ms. Robinson's attorney, and vocational expert (VE) Pamela Tucker. (Id. at 545-77). On December 8, 2014, the ALJ again found Plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits. (Id. at 538). Following the five-step sequential evaluation process required by the Social Security Regulations (20 CFR § 404.1520), the ALJ initially noted that Ms. Robinson met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2011. (Id. at 525). At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Robinson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of July 31, 2010. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Robinson had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, obesity, and major depressive disorder. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Robinson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 526).

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Robinson:

had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c). She can lift and carry up to twenty-five pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally. She can stand and/or walk about six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can sit about six hours in an eight-hour workday. The work should involve: simple instructions, routine tasks, occasional changes in the work setting, and simple work-related decisions.

(Id. at 528).[3] Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Ms. Robinson was able to perform past relevant work as a carton machine feeder, a medium, unskilled job. (Id. at 536, 550). At step five, the ALJ alternatively found that Ms. Robinson could perform other work existing in the national economy including laundry worker and cleaner. (Id. at 538). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Robinson was not disabled under the Act. (Id.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner (id. at 507-10), and Plaintiff now seeks review in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. BACKGROUND[4]

         Ms. Robinson applied for disability insurance benefits on August 10, 2010. She was nearly 55 years old on her claimed onset date of July 31, 2010 and 56 years old on her last insured date of December 31, 2011. (Dkt. 13; R. at 537). Ms. Robinson previously held jobs including transcriptionist and cardboard machine feeder. (R. at 618). The ALJ found Ms. Robinson had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, obesity, and major depressive disorder. (Id. at 525).

         At the hearing before the ALJ on November 13, 2014, Ms. Robinson testified that during the relevant time period in 2010 and 2011, she was elevating her legs about three times a day. (Id. at 552). When she did chores at home, she would have to stop and put her legs up every two to three hours. (Id. at 553). Ms. Robinson was not sure why she had so much pain until a doctor told her it was due to fibromyalgia. (Id. at 554). She also testified that she had fatigue and was not sure if the cause was her medication or fibromyalgia. (Id. at 558-59). She took naps about once a day for two to three hours. In the morning, she was sometimes refreshed and sometimes tired, depending on what she did the day before. (Id. at 560).

         Fibromyalgia is “a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.” Mayo Clinic: Fibromyalgia.[5] In July 2012, the Social Security Administration (SSA) issued guidelines describing fibromyalgia as “a complex medical condition characterized primarily by widespread pain in the joints, muscles, tendons, or nearby soft tissues that has persisted for at least 3 months.” SSR 12-2p, 2012 SSR LEXIS 1. One indicator of fibromyalgia is a “history of widespread pain…in all quadrants of the body, [which] may fluctuate in intensity and may not always be present.”[6]


         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final decision if the Appeals Counsel denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). The district court reviews the decision of the ALJ, limiting its review to a determination of whether the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Evidence is considered substantial “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004). In addition, the ALJ must explain her 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). When the ALJ recommends a denial of benefits, the ALJ “must first build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion.” Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations and citation omitted). This means that the ALJ “must rest its denial of benefits on adequate evidence contained in the record and must explain why contrary evidence does not persuade.” Id. A Commissioner decision that lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues will be remanded. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). The reviewing court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discredited Plaintiff which resulted in an inaccurate RFC. (Dkt. 13 at 13-15).[7] “[A]lthough we defer to an ALJ's credibility finding that is not patently wrong, …an ALJ still must competently explain an adverse-credibility finding with specific reasons supported by the record. An erroneous credibility finding requires remand unless the claimant's testimony is incredible on its face or the ALJ explains that the decision did not depend on the credibility finding.” Engstrand v. Colvin, 788 F.3d 655, 660 (7th Cir. 2015) (internal citations and quotations omitted).[8]

         Under the Social Security regulations, symptoms including pain are evaluated using a two-step process. The ALJ: (1) considers whether there is an underlying medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms; and (2) makes a finding on the credibility of the claimant's statements, considering of the entire case record. S.S.R. 96-7p. Here, the ALJ determined that Ms. Robinson's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms but Ms. Robinson's statements about the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (R. at 530).

         Because fibromyalgia “often produce[s] pain and other symptoms out of proportion to the ‘objective' medical evidence, it is crucial that the disability adjudicator evaluate credibility with great care and a proper understanding of the disease[].” Johnson v. Colvin, No. 13-C-1023, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82830, at *1 (E.D. Wis. June 18, 2014) (citing Sarchet v. Chater,78 F.3d 305 (7th Cir. 1996)). In this case, the ALJ did not evaluate Plaintiff's claims with sufficient care and understanding of fibromyalgia and in light of the record as a whole. Because the ALJ's credibility determination was based on ...

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