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Loftis v. Berryhill

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

May 26, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          DANIEL G. MARTIN United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Sherry Loftis (“Plaintiff” or “Loftis”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Nancy Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for disability benefits and supplemental security income benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act in a September 15, 2014 written decision of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ issued her ruling after the parties voluntarily remanded an earlier unfavorable ruling issued on June 16, 2011 by a different ALJ. Loftis appealed the new ruling to this Court and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment that seeks to reverse the Commissioner's decision.


         A. The Social Security Administration Standard

         In order to qualify for DIB, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled. An individual does so by showing that he cannot "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. § 4243(d)(1)(A). Gainful activity is defined as "the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b).

         The Social Security Administration ("SSA") applies a five-step analysis to disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The SSA first considers whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity during the claimed period of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). It then determines at Step 2 whether the claimant's physical or mental impairment is severe and meets the twelve-month durational requirement noted above. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At Step 3, the SSA compares the impairment (or combination of impairments) found at Step 2 to a list of impairments identified in the regulations ("the Listings"). The specific criteria that must be met to satisfy a Listing are described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairments meet or "medically equal" a Listing, the individual is considered to be disabled, and the analysis concludes; if a Listing is not met, the analysis proceeds to Step 4. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         Before addressing the fourth step, the SSA must assess a claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which defines his exertional and non-exertional capacity to work. The SSA then determines at the fourth step whether the claimant is able to engage in any of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can do so, he is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot undertake past work, the SSA proceeds to Step 5 to determine whether a substantial number of jobs exist that the claimant can perform in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. An individual is not disabled if he can do work that is available under this standard. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         B. Standard of Review

         A claimant who is found to be "not disabled" may challenge the Commissioner's final decision in federal court. Judicial review of an ALJ's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A court reviews the entire record, but it does not displace the ALJ's judgment by reweighing the facts or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         Instead, the court looks at whether the ALJ articulated an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence to her conclusions. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). This requirement is designed to allow a reviewing court to "assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford a claimant meaningful judicial review." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). Thus, even if reasonable minds could differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, courts will affirm a decision if the ALJ's opinion is adequately explained and supported by substantial evidence. Elder, 529 F.3d at 413 (citation omitted).


         The Court omits a detailed discussion of the facts on which Plaintiff bases her disability claim. Loftis claims that she suffers from severe back and cervical pain that was frequently treated with narcotic pain medications. Various MRI and x-ray studies revealed scattered degenerative disc disease, mild central canal narrowing and stenosis, and abnormalities in the cervical spine. Loftis also complained that she was depressed. Although she had never sought specialized psychological treatment, Loftis was treated by her primary care physician and other non-specialists with various psychotropic medications.

         Following the familiar five-step analytic procedure that governs adult disability cases, the ALJ concluded at step one that Loftis had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date of April 17, 2008. Plaintiff's severe impairments at step two were obesity, degenerative disc disease, hypertension, status post retinal vein occlusion of the right eye with laser treatment, and scleritis of the left eye. Though she devoted significant portions of the decision to Plaintiff's depression, the ALJ found that Loftis did not suffer from a severe mood disorder.[1] As part of that analysis, the ALJ applied the “special technique” set out in the regulations for assessing the severity of a claimant's mental impairment. The ALJ concluded that Loftis had a mild limitation in her ability to carry out activities of daily living (“ADLs”), a mild restriction in social functioning, and a moderate limitation in her capacity for maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. No episodes of decompensation were present.

         None of these impairments met or equaled a listed impairment at step three. Before moving to step four, the ALJ evaluated the severity of Plaintiff's symptoms by considering the credibility of her testimony. She found that Loftis' testimony was “not entirely credible.” (R. 503). The ALJ then assessed a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) of sedentary work as follows:

She can occasionally, [sic] balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can tolerate occasional exposure to and work around extreme cold and heat, wetness, humidity, vibration, and hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights. She needs to change position hourly while at workstation for up to five minutes. She can perform unskilled work tasks that can be learned by demonstration or in 30 days or less of a simple, repetitive and routine nature with occasional contact with the general public of an incidental and superficial nature and occasional interaction with supervisors and co-workers.

(R. 501). As part of this evaluation, the ALJ assigned weights to the opinions of a variety of medical experts, including testifying psychologist Dr. Ellen Rozenfeld and testifying medical expert Dr. Sai Nimmagadda. Plaintiff had no past relevant work at step four. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that jobs existed in the national economy that Loftis could perform. She therefore concluded that Loftis was not disabled.


         Loftis argues that the ALJ erred by incorrectly (1) assessing her mental and physical RFC and (2) evaluating her credibility. Part of the ALJ's analysis of the first issue involves her assessment of the various expert reports. Because the Court finds that remand is required on Plaintiff's first ground, it only briefly addresses the credibility issue.

         A. The Physical RFC

         Plaintiff argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's RFC finding that she “needs to change position hourly while at workstation for up to five minutes.” (R. 501). The Court agrees. Testifying expert Dr. Sai Nimmagadda stated that Loftis would need to alternate between sitting and standing for five minutes every 30 to 60 minutes. The ALJ recognized the expert's opinion, which he gave great weight to, and cited it as support for the physical RFC. That RFC, ...

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