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Peterson v. Berryhill

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

May 25, 2017

KEVIN PETERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge

         The plaintiff, Kevin Peterson, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner (“Commissioner”) of the Social Security Administration (“Agency”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). 42 U.S.C. 1382c(a)(3)(A). Mr. Peterson asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Peterson applied for SSI on July 18, 2011, alleging that he had been disabled since December 1, 2009, as a result of herniated discs in his back, arthritis in his arm, migraines, depression, and chronic pain syndrome. (Administrative Record (“R.”) 227-32, 250). His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 157-63, 169-72). Mr. White continued pursuit of his claim by filing a timely request for hearing on August 24, 2012. (R. 185).

         An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) convened a hearing on May 27, 2014, and Mr. Peterson, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (R. 50-156). In addition, a vocational expert, Pamela Tucker, also testified. (R. 50, 136-145). On August 26, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Mr. Peterson's application for SSI because, although he could not perform any of his past relevant work, he could perform at least a limited range of light work. (R. 22-44). This capacity allowed Mr. White to perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, such as cleaner/polisher, address clerk, and document preparer. (R. 43). This became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Mr. White's request for review of the decision on January 27, 2016. (R. 4-9). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.955; 404.981. Mr. White has appealed that decision to the federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The applicable standard of review of the Commissioner's decision is a familiar one. The court must affirm the decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Brown v. Colvin, 845 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 2016). The court may not reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Social Security Administration. Alvarado v. Colvin, 836 F.3d 744, 747 (7th Cir. 2016); Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 362 (7th Cir. 2013).

         While the standard of review is deferential, “‘this does not mean that we will simply rubber-stamp the Commissioner's decision without a critical review of the evidence.'” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015)(quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000)). See also Cinatl v. Astrue, 2011 WL 1743408, at *6 (N.D. Ill. 2011)(“While the standard of review is deferential, it is not abject.”). In order for the court to affirm a denial of benefits, the ALJ must “minimally articulate” the reasons for her decision. Brown, 845 F.3d at 252. This means that the ALJ “must build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence” and her conclusion. O'Connor-Spinner v. Colvin, 832 F.3d 690, 698 (7th Cir. 2016). The ALJ's decision must allow the court to assess the validity of her findings and afford the plaintiff a meaningful judicial review. Murphy v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 811, 819 (7th Cir. 2014). As Judge Posner has put it, “we cannot uphold a decision by an administrative agency, any more than we can uphold a decision by a district court, if, while there is enough evidence in the record to support the decision, the reasons given by the trier of fact do not build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result.” Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 1996).

         III. DISCUSSION

         There are issues with the vocational evidence in this case, and the ALJ's treatment of it, that require a remand, so the usual long and often tedious recounting of the large medical record will be dispensed with. Suffice it to say that, as the ALJ found, Mr. Peterson has a number of severe impairments, including arthritis of the neck, back, and wrist, migraines, depression, anxiety, and personality disorder. (R. 25). As a result of his physical impairments, the ALJ found that Mr. Peterson could perform light work that did not require repetitive pushing or pulling with his extremities; climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; balancing or crawling; more than occasional climbing ramps/stairs, kneeling, crouching, or stopping; and no more than frequent reaching, handling, or fingering. (R. 41).

         The ALJ further found that, as a result of his psychological impairments, Mr. Peterson suffered from a mild restriction in his activities of daily living, a moderate restriction in his social functioning, and a moderate limitation in his ability to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace. (R. 27). Because of these limitations, the ALJ determined that Mr. Peterson was limited to work that was unskilled, simple, and repetitive; and that involved only simple, routine instructions. He could not work with the general public. He could adapt to changes and make decisions that would be required in such work; would be distracted only rarely and would never be off task outside of break times. (R. 42). Despite all these limitations, the ALJ, relying on testimony from the vocational expert, determined that Mr. Peterson could perform work that existed in significant numbers in the economy. He could be a cleaner/polisher, an address clerk, or a document preparer. (R. 43). Accordingly, the ALJ found Mr. Peterson was not disabled and not entitled to SSI under the Act. (R. 43-44).

         As just noted, along the way to reaching her decision, the ALJ determined that Mr. Peterson has moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace. (R. 27). The Commissioner's regulations do not quantify what is meant by “moderate” difficulties, but the regulations do instruct ALJs to rate the degree of limitation on a 5-point scale of none, mild, moderate, marked, and extreme. O'Connor-Spinner v. Colvin, 832 F.3d 690, 698-99 (7th Cir. 2016); Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 365 (7th Cir. 2013); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a. So a moderate limitation would rate a 3, and would be fairly significant; in other words, the ALJ had to account for it in her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) finding and in her hypothetical to the vocational expert. O'Connor-Spinner, 832 F.3d at 698; Varga v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 809, 813 (7th Cir. 2015); Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 857 (7th Cir. 2014).

         In her RFC finding, the ALJ said that Mr. Peterson has the capacity:

to perform and sustain simple, repetitive work. He can understand, remember and carry out simple routine instructions. . . . He would be distracted only rarely by symptoms to the extent that he was off ...

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