United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE THOMAS M. DURKIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Tolbert brings this action for judicial review of the
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her
claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”)
and social security income (“SSI”). Ms. Tolbert
moved this Court for summary judgment. R. 16. In lieu of a
response, the Commissioner filed a motion for remand,
conceding errors in the decision of the Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”). R. 30 at 1. The Commissioner's
motion for remand is granted in part in that the case will
return to the Social Security Administration for final
disposition; Ms. Tolbert's motion for summary judgment is
also granted in part in that the remand order is with
instructions to calculate and award benefits to Ms. Tolbert
retroactive to April 1, 2005. The Court's reasoning is
set forth below.
the second appeal of this case to the district court. The
opinion on the first appeal, decided by Judge Mason in 2012,
sets forth in extensive detail the medical history relevant
to this case. See Tolbert v. Astrue, 2012 WL 1245611
at *1-8 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 13, 2012) (remanding to the Social
Security Administration for further proceedings). The Court
will not recite that entire medical history here, as it is
voluminous. Instead, it incorporates by reference Judge
Mason's recitation of the medical evidence, and
summarizes the salient facts as follows.
Tolbert was 43 years-old at the time this appeal was filed,
and claims that she became disabled within the meaning of 42
U.S.C. § 416(i)(1) on April 1, 2005. R. 1. At all times
relevant to this case, Ms. Tolbert has been a single mother
of three children, the youngest of whom is disabled. A.R.
454-58. She has at all times lived with her
children and her grandchild in an apartment in Chicago.
Tolbert completed the 8th grade and part of her first year of
high school. Id. She does not now, nor has she ever,
had a driver's license. Id. As an adult, she
received vocational and on-the-job training in home care
services, landscaping and security work. Id. She has
not been substantially gainfully employed since April 1,
2005. Id. at 157-68.
Tolbert has maintained that since that date, she has been
unable to complete housework due to back and joint pain,
unable to stand for more than several minutes at a time,
unable to walk more than a half-block without pain and
difficulty breathing, and unable to complete even sedentary
tasks such as reading or watching a television show without
falling asleep. Id. at 11-61, 157-68, 444-508. The
medical records, including x-rays and other medical imaging
reports, support Ms. Tolbert's representations. See,
e.g., id. at 228-245, 261-271, 293-97, 315, 333-34,
358-360, 372-382, 731-33. Ms. Tolbert has been prescribed a
host of medications over time to treat shortness of breath
and wheezing, see Id. at 689 (Albuterol), as well as
pain and inflammation, see, e.g., Id. at 166
(Feloditine, Indapamide, Aspirin, Folic Acid, Cyclobenzaprine
to control pain and inflammation), id. at 336
(adding Tylenol 3 with codeine). In addition, Ms.
Tolbert's longstanding complaints of daytime drowsiness
and lack of energy, coupled with an acute cardiac incident in
2008, led her to undergo a sleep study in 2009, which
ultimately resulted in a diagnosis of sleep apnea.
Id. at 280-82; 299-300; 335-57. Ms. Tolbert was
prescribed a CPAP machine to treat her symptoms, id.
at 361-66, however, the daytime drowsiness persists, see
Id. at 317, 461, 802-03. Ms. Tolbert has also
consistently reported, and more recently sought treatment for
depression. Id. at 393-94, 401-09.
Tolbert filed the DIB and SSI applications at issue on May 8,
2006, alleging disability beginning April 1, 2005. A.R.
135-42, 157-81. She claimed then, as she has claimed for more
than a decade since, that arthritis, diabetes, hypertension,
hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, and morbid obesity (weight in
excess of 350 pounds, body mass index of greater than 50)
prevent her from obtaining gainful employment. Id.
Tolbert's claims were initially denied on August 17,
2006, id. at 62-63, 66-80, and again upon request
for reconsideration five months later, id. at 64-65,
81-87 . She appeared unrepresented before the ALJ on March
18, 2009, and again on June 10, 2009 after medical records
had been added to her file. See Id. at 11, 46. On
August 31, 2009, the ALJ issued a written decision denying
Ms. Tolbert's applications for benefits. Id. at
66-76. Central to the ALJ's determination of Ms.
Tolbert's claims were his unfavorable assessment of her
credibility and rejection of the opinion of her treating
physician, Dr. Ahmed. Id. at 72-75. Ms. Tolbert
requested further review of her case by the Social Security
Administration's Appeals Council. Id. at 131-34.
The Appeals Council denied her request for review, set aside
that denial to consider additional medical records, and then
denied the request again, rendering the decision final and
appealable. Id. at 1-10.
previously noted, Ms. Tolbert then sought judicial review in
this district. Tolbert, 2012 WL 1245611 at *1. On
April 23, 2012, Judge Mason issued a lengthy Memorandum
Opinion and Order granting in part and denying in part her
motion for summary judgment and remanding the case for
further review. Id. Specifically, the court found
the ALJ's credibility assessment of Ms. Tolbert
“unreasonable and not supported by the record, ”
replete with findings contradicted by the medical evidence
and based on considerations that were either impermissible
under Seventh Circuit precedent or not grounded in common
sense. Id. at *11-12. In particular, the court took
issue with the ALJ's finding that Ms. Tolbert's
claims of daytime drowsiness lacked support in the medical
record. Id. at *12. The Court furthermore cautioned
that on remand, “if the ALJ declines to give th[e]
opinion [of Dr. Ahmed, Ms. Tolbert's treating physician]
controlling weight, he must properly articulate his reasons
for doing so.” Id. at *12-13.
the pendency of the first appeal to the district court, Ms.
Tolbert filed a second application for DIB and SSI.
See A.R. 641-48. The reviewing medical consultant
opined at that time, based on evidence of chronic hip, lower
back and knee pain, degenerative arthritis, and limited range
of motion, that Ms. Tolbert's severe impairments equaled
listing-level disability 1.02A (Major dysfunction of a
joint(s) due to any cause). Id. at 782-85. She
identified the date of onset as November 19, 2009
“based on evidence which shows that claimant weighed
404 lbs. on this date.” Id. at 784. The
Appeals Council reviewed and affirmed the determination.
See Id. at 537-40.
accordance with Judge Mason's order, the Appeals Council
remanded the case to the ALJ for a determination of
disability for the period from April 1, 2005, the alleged
onset date in Ms. Tolbert's first application for
benefits, to November 19, 2009, the onset date identified by
the physician who reviewed and approved Ms. Tolbert's
second application for benefits. Id. Ms. Tolbert
re-appeared before the ALJ on December 9, 2013, with the
assistance of counsel. See Id. at 444-508. Her
testimony at that hearing was consistent with the testimony
she had given a few years earlier, though she reported that
the condition of her left knee had become more painful over
time. See Id. at 455-77.
26, 2014, the ALJ again denied Ms. Tolbert's claims.
See A.R. 421-43. Specifically, he found that while
Ms. Tolbert had the severe impairments of morbid obesity,
osteoarthritis in the knees and lumbar spine, obstructive
sleep apnea, insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, and
depression from April 1, 2005 through November 18, 2009,
these impairments were insufficiently severe to constitute a
disability, because Ms. Tolbert had the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform restricted sedentary
work. Id. 427-35. In reaching this conclusion, the
ALJ again made adverse credibility determinations as to both
Ms. Tolbert and her treating physician, Dr. Ahmed. See
Id. He relied instead on the RFC determinations of three
state agency physicians, none of whom considered the impact
of Ms. Tolbert's sleep apnea and daytime drowsiness when
reaching their conclusions about her ability to perform
restricted sedentary work. See Id. at 433-35. Ms.
Tolbert once again appeals, this time seeking summary
judgment in her favor on a complete medical record. R. 17.
review of a final decision of the Social Security
Administration is generally deferential. The Social Security
Act requires the court to sustain the ALJ's findings if
they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The court should
review the entire administrative record, but must “not
reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of
credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the
[ALJ].” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869
(7th Cir. 2000). “However, this does not mean that [the
court] will simply rubber-stamp the [ALJ's] decision
without a critical review of the evidence.”
Id. A decision may be reversed if the ALJ's
findings “are not supported by substantial evidence or
if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard.”
Id. In addition, the court will reverse if the ALJ
does not “explain his 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). “Although a written
evaluation of each piece of evidence or testimony is not
required, neither may the ALJ select and discuss only that
evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion.”
Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994);
see Scrogham v. Colvin, 765 F.3d 685, 698 (7th Cir.
2014) (“This ‘sound-bite' approach to record
evaluation is an impermissible methodology for evaluating the
evidence.”). Additionally, the ALJ “has a duty to
fully develop the record before drawing any conclusions,
” Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 634 (7th
Cir. 2007), and deference in review is lessened when the ALJ
has made errors of fact or logic, Thomas v. Colvin,
745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). In oft-quoted words, the
Seventh Circuit has said that the ALJ “‘must
build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his
conclusion.'” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872
(quoting Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th
Cir. 2014)). When the ALJ has satisfied these requirements,
the responsibility for deciding whether the claimant is
disabled falls on the Social Security Administration, and, if
conflicting evidence would allow reasonable minds to differ
as to whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ's decision
must be affirmed. Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178,
181 (7th Cir. 1990) (internal quotation marks and citation
the ALJ's decision need not be affirmed, and
“[c]ourts have the statutory power to affirm, reverse,
or modify the Social Security Administration's decision,
with or without remanding the case for further
proceedings.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Allord v.
Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 415 (7th Cir. 2011). “This
power includes the courts' ability to remand with
instructions for the Commissioner to calculate and award
benefits to the applicant, ” and “an award of
benefits is appropriate . . . if all factual issues involved
in the ...