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French v. Berryhill

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

June 1, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Janetta French brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff applied for disability benefits and supplemental security income in March and April 2012, respectively, alleging a disability onset date of November 23, 2011. (R. 12, 220.) The application was initially denied on August 23, 2012, and again on reconsideration on January 13, 2013. (R. 103, 143-50.) Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 9, 2014. (R. 35-80.) On January 30, 2014, the ALJ denied plaintiff's applications and found her not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 12-23.)

         The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on April 24, 2015. (R. 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, reviewable by this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).


         The Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, affirming if it is supported by “substantial evidence in the record, ” i.e., “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “Although this standard is generous, it is not entirely uncritical, ” and the case must be remanded if the “decision lacks evidentiary support.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         Under the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the “inability to 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). The regulations prescribe a five-part sequential test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Under the regulations, the Commissioner must consider: (1) whether the claimant has performed any substantial gainful activity during the period for which she claims disability; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) if so, whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals any listed impairment; (4) if not, whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether she is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.; Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and if that burden is met, the burden shifts at step five to the Commissioner to provide evidence that the claimant is capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2).

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. (R. 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine with radiculopathy, status post cervical and lumbar surgery, asthma and osteoarthritis of the hips.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. (R. 15.) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, but had the RFC:

[T]o perform light work . . . except [that she] can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and only occasionally climb ramps or stairs . . . . [, ] can occasionally bend, kneel, stoop, crouch, crawl or balance. . . . [, ] can occasionally perform tasks involving fine and gross manipulation with her upper extremities bilaterally . . . . [, ] must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants and extreme cold . . . . [, and] must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards including dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights.

(R. 15, 21.) At step five, the ALJ found that jobs exist in significant numbers in the economy that plaintiff can perform, and thus she is not disabled. (R. 22-23.)

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the opinion of her treating physicians, Drs. Brandon and Kazmar, who said that plaintiff could only sit, stand, or walk for one hour out of an eight-hour workday, could only occasionally lift five to ten pounds, and was limited in her ability to use her hands and to reach with her arms. (R. 360-64, 634-40.) A treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.” 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(c)(2). The ALJ said that was not the case because: (1) the doctors' “treatment notes and the medical record as a whole do not support” their opinions; (2) their “treatment notes contain few if any clinical examination findings” and are based primarily on plaintiff's complaints of pain; and (3) their view that plaintiff has a limited ability to reach, sit, stand, and walk is contradicted by the consultative examiner's findings and imaging of plaintiff's shoulders. (R. 19-20.)

         The record supports the ALJ's determination. Plaintiff's medical records show that she frequently complained of pain in her back, knees, hips, and hands, but repeated imaging studies failed to reveal any acute problems. (See, e.g., R. 375 (“Films show mild DJD [degenerative joint disease] R Knee” and “DJD in back”); R. 376 (“X-rays [do not show] significant pathology” in the hip); R. 381 (“[N]o acute fracture or subluxation . . . . [, ] no abnormal motion on flexion or extension views” in cervical spine); R. 382 (x-rays of lumbarsacral spine show “[m]ild multilevel degenerative change slightly progressed since 2009”); R. 383 & 438 (MRI showed “[u]nremarkable left hip”); R. 384 & 439 (MRI of right knee showed “[m]ild tricompartmental degenerative change” and “[m]ild nonspecific bone marrow edema”); R. 397 & 423 (x-ray of hands showed “[m]inimal degenerative changes”); R. 400-01 (statement of Dr. Luken, plaintiff's treating neurologist, that, given the negative results of the imaging studies, “the explanation for [plaintiff's] very troublesome pain is not at all obvious to me”); R. 403 (disability insurance form completed by Dr. Brandon that says plaintiff is limited in her ability to walk, sit, stand, reach, grasp, lift, push, and pull, an “assessment . . . [that] is based on . . . [the] patient's report”); R. 424 (x-ray of right wrist showed “no acute osseous finding”); R. 425 (x-ray of left foot and ankle showed “no acute fracture or subluxation”); R. 428 (x-ray of both hips showed “[m]ild to moderate bilateral hip degenerative change, right greater than left”); R. 430 (x-ray of knees showed “[m]ild medial and lateral femoral tibial joint space narrowing, not significantly changed from 2010”); R. 433 (report of x-ray of shoulders stating, “No acute findings seen”); R. 434 (MRI of upper extremity joint showed that “[t]here are very mild changes of chronic tendinosis in the lateral aspect of the supraspinatus and degenerative changes at the acromioclavicular joint”). Thus, aside from plaintiff's subjective complaints, there is little support in the record for the functional limitations Drs. Brandon and Kazmar ascribe to her. As a result, the ALJ's refusal to give controlling weight to the opinions of Drs. Brandon and Kazmar was not error.

         Even if that is true, plaintiff contends that the ALJ's assessment of the doctors' opinions was erroneous because the ALJ did not consider all of the regulatory factors. See 20 C.F.R § 404.1527(c) (stating that, in assessing a medical opinion, an ALJ considers whether the doctor examined the plaintiff; whether the doctor is a specialist; the nature, extent and length of the treatment relationship, if any, between the doctor and the plaintiff; whether the opinion is supported by objective evidence and is consistent with the record as a whole, and any other factors that “tend to support or contradict the opinion”). The Court disagrees. The ALJ acknowledged that Drs. Brandon and Kazmar examined plaintiff and treated her over a period of time. (R. 19-20.) But the ALJ stressed that their opinions of plaintiff's limitations were not supported by their ...

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