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Corral v. Berryhill

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

July 19, 2017

EFREN CORRAL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge

         Efren Corral ("Corral") seeks judicial review pursuant to the Social Security Act (the "Act"), more specifically 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383 (c)(3), [1] of the final decision by Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn Colvin ("Colvin")[2] that denied Corral's claims for Social Security Disability ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act. Corral appeals the decision of the Commissioner, and the Commissioner seeks summary judgment.[3] For the reasons given in this memorandum opinion and order, Corral's motion is granted and Commissioner's motion is denied. Hence Commissioner's final decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Summary of the Record and of This Court's Rulings

         Background

         On September 25, 2012 Corral filed both a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for SSI (R. 17). In both applications Corral alleged that his disability began on January 1, 2011. Corral's claims were initially denied on December 26, 2012 and upon reconsideration on May 31, 2013. Corral then filed a request for hearing and appeared and testified at a hearing held on May 8, 2014, at which vocational expert Matthew Lamley and medical expert Dr. Sai Nimmagadda also testified.

         ALJ Patricia Supergan presided at the hearing and entered a June 27, 2014 decision finding (1) that as to Corral's application for a period of SSDI he is not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Act, and (2) as to his application for SSI he is not disabled under Section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act. In doing so the ALJ found that Corral could perform sedentary work with some limitations and that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Corral can perform. ALJ Supergan's opinion now represents Commissioner's final decision.

         Summary of This Court's Rulings

         Corral challenges his denial of benefits on the ground that ALJ Supergan erred when she failed to evaluate certain evidence properly. First he asks this Court to reverse the ALJ's rejection of Corral's testimony on credibility grounds and her finding that the descriptions by his mother-in-law Maria Koite ("Koite") of his symptoms and functional capacity are not credible. In those respects this Court agrees that ALJ Supergan did not properly evaluate the credibility of Corral's testimony and functional report or the third-party report prepared by Koite. Second, Corral argues that ALJ Supergan erred when, although she afforded all of the opinions of non-examining physician Dr. Nimmagadda "great weight, " she gave "little weight" to his opinion that Corral may need to alternate sitting and standing every 30 minutes to an hour throughout the day to relieve pain, without adequately explaining her decision to do so. On that score this Court also agrees. And third, Corral contends that the ALJ erroneously afforded "little weight" to the opinion of an examining bone and joint specialist physician Dr. Elias, and once again this Court agrees.

         On the whole Corral argues that ALJ Supergan committed reversible error when she failed to evaluate properly both his testimony and statements of medical experts that he could not sit for extended periods of time, and when she did not explain why she declined to include an option for Corral to change positions regularly or address his claim that he needs to lie down to relieve pain throughout the day in her residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding. In addition, she did not even address Corral's allegation that he needs to lie down periodically during the day to alleviate pain. Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p requires ALJs to include a "discussion of why reported symptom-related functional limitations and restrictions can or cannot reasonably be accepted as consistent with the medical and other evidence" (1996 WL 374184 (S.S.A.) at *7). Specifically, testimony and opinions of a non-examining impartial medical expert (Dr. Nimmagadda), an examining physician (Dr. Elias), Corral himself and Koite all stated explicitly that Corral needs to alternate sitting and standing throughout the day to relieve pain and pressure on his back. This Court agrees that the ALJ's decision to reject those opinions summarily, and as a result to omit the option for Corral to alternate standing and sitting throughout the day, was made in error and against the weight of substantial evidence.

         Medical Records

         Several sources provided medical records to the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), of which only those relevant to the portions of the ALJ's opinion that Corral is contesting will be recited. In 1993 Corral suffered a herniated disc, underwent surgery and returned to work until 2003, at which time he experienced severe low back pain while lifting a heavy object (R. 384). Despite undergoing pain management treatment for a number of years, Corral consistently returned to doctors and specialists complaining of severe radiating lower back pain.

         Each of the examining physicians who submitted medical records to the SSA noted that Corral's back pain was chronic and severe, and that it was continuing to get worse (R. 418, 384-85, 445-52. 463-64, 497, 601, 604-05). Moreover, test results in the record speak for themselves: In 2008 an x-ray showed central disc herniation with slight displacement of the thecal sac and transversing portions of the cauda equine, somewhat irregular protrusions and loss of epidural fat posterior to certain discs, which suggests scarring (R. 433). Corral has had at least three MRIs since he stopped working in 2003, and each of them has shown a herniated disc, impingement on the thescal sac and degenerative changes in the discs (R. 380-81). In particular Corral's 2012 MRI showed narrowing of the left neural foramina, and his 2013 MRI showed canal stenosis, foraminal stenosis and a disc tear (R. 600).

         Neurosurgeon Dr. Kranzler examined Corral in 2012 and 2014, with both examinations resulting in his diagnosis of lumbar radiculopathy and suggestion that Corral undergo additional back surgery, though on the second occasion he noted that Corral was "able to manage with medication" (R. 497, 604, 607). In 2013 Dr. Elias (from the bone and joint center) performed several tests to measure the extent to which Corral's pain was in part psychological, with the results of each test reflecting that Corral was indeed more physical than psychological -- in other words, the tests did not indicate that Corral was malingering (R. 601). Dr. Elias also noted that Corral had an antalgic gait, range of motion that is limited by about 50%, difficulty getting on and off the examination table, pain with toe and heel walking, pain with squatting and positive straight leg raising (id.). Finally he opined that Corral has a "severe disability" and will have "significant difficulty holding a job as his history indicates and he will require multisystem management due to the stress that his body has taken over a period of two decades" (id.).

         As for Corral's ability to do work-related activity, doctors have consistently noted serious limitations. When Corral's general physician Dr. Pedrera submitted a medical source statement of Corral's ability to do work-related activities to the SSA in 2010, he listed numerous limitations: Corral could only occasionally lift and carry as much as 10 pounds, sit as much as 6 hours in an 8 hour workday and stand and walk as much as 2 hours in an 8 hour workday, had limited ability to push and pull with lower extremities, could not climb, kneel, balance, crouch, crawl or stoop and had environmental limitations with temperature extremes, vibrations, humidity, hazards and fumes/odors, chemicals and gas (R. 428-31). Notably Dr. Nimmagadda, who was retained by the SSA to testify as an impartial nonexamining physician, listed in his testimony at the 2014 hearing most of the same limitations identified by Dr. Pedrera four years earlier, but he added that Corral may need to alternate sitting and standing every 30 minutes to an hour for five minutes or less (R. 635-36).

         Corral also submitted records from psychological examinations and treatment for depression and anxiety (R. 399-406, 535, 597). Those records reflect that Corral has suffered from depression and anxiety pain (R. 399-405). But examining psychologists note the absence of certain risk factors such as mental illness and suicidal ideation (R. 403-05, 535).

         Corral's Symptoms

         As part of his SSDI application Corral completed a function report on October 19, 2012 (R. 325). There he related that problems related to his herniated disk and back surgery made it difficult to bend or sit or walk for long periods of time, that he could not lift anything heavier than 5 pounds and that he cannot sit or stand for more than 30 minutes at a time (R. 326-31). Corral also wrote that he suffers from depression and spends most of his time isolated and that he is in chronic pain that requires constant medication (R. 326). Furthermore, the constant medication makes it difficult for him to focus on anything -- for instance, he tries to read newspapers but ultimately gives up (R. 327). In terms of his everyday functional capacity, he has trouble sleeping, dressing himself and bathing, he cannot prepare his own meals because he cannot stand for long periods of time, he leaves the house only 2 or 3 times a month, he shops for groceries once a month and he drives only if he is not medicated and has an emergency (R. 328-29).

         At the May 8, 2014 ALJ hearing Corral testified as to his symptoms and impairments. There he explained that the last time he had worked was in 2013 on the line at a meatpacking plant, but to do so he needed accommodation from a supervisor who allowed him to take breaks because he could stand for only about 15 to 30 minutes at a time (R. 618-19, 633). When the accommodating supervisor was switched out, Corral could no longer perform his job because it caused him too much pain to stand for prolonged periods without relief (id.). Corral also testified that often his pain is so severe that he cannot get out of bed, but that on a good day (when his pain level is at an 8 out of 10) he drives his kids to or from school (R. 630). In the two weeks before the hearing he had driven his kids to school and picked them up twice (R. 624). In addition, he often needs to lie down during the day to alleviate his back pain (R. 72, 632).

         Corral's mother-in-law Koite completed a third party function report about Corral's condition (R. 340). In it she recounted that Corral is not able to walk more than one block, nor can he sit or stand for long periods of time, bend or lift heavy objects (R. 340-45). Furthermore she confirmed that he takes "strong medication" for his back pain and that he cannot sleep comfortably because of the pain, needs help dressing and bathing, cannot stand long enough to prepare his own meals and cannot sit on the toilet for very long because of the pain (R. 342-43). In addition she wrote that he suffers from depression and does not socialize and that the side effects of his medication cause him to need help handling money and remembering to take his medication (R. 343-44). Finally, Koite wrote that Corral rarely drives and usually leaves the house only to go grocery shopping or attend church once or twice a month (R. 343-45).

         ALJ's Opinion

         ALJ Supergan found that Corral met the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2012 and had periodically engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of January 1, 2011, though he had completely stopped working in 2013 (R. 20). In addition she found that Corral's obesity and degenerative disc disease constituted severe impairments, but that Corral did not have an impairment or combination of impairments equivalent in severity to one of those listed in Reg. Subpart P, App'x 1 (R. 20-22). As to his alleged depression, the ALJ found that it did not cause Corral any moderate, marked or extreme functional limitations in the four areas used to evaluate mental disorders (R. 21).

         In assessing Corral's RFC the ALJ made an adverse credibility determination and accorded little weight to Corral's testimony and his functional capacity report (R. 23-24). While finding that Corral's conditions could reasonably be expected to cause the symptoms of which he complained, the ALJ discounted his statements as to the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of those symptoms (id.). In addition, she gave little weight to the opinions of Drs. Pedrera, Kranzler and Elias (R. 24-27). By contrast, she gave great weight to the opinions of Dr. Nimmagadda except for his opinion that Corral may need to alternate sitting and standing throughout the day (R. 26). Thus ALJ Supergan found that Corral has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in Regs. §§ 1567(a) and 416.967(a). Although Corral could not perform his previous work, the vocational expert testified that with his limitations Corral could perform jobs such as order clerk, so that the ALJ found that he was not disabled (R. 28-29).

         Standard of Review and Applicable Law

         This Court reviews ALJ Supergan's opinion as Commissioner's final decision, considering its legal conclusions de novo (Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005)). By contrast, factual determinations receive deferential review, so that courts may not "reweigh the evidence or substitute [their] own judgment for that of the ALJ" and will affirm Commissioner's decision "if it is supported by substantial evidence" (id.). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla, " but rather "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion" (Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Credibility determinations receive even more deferential review. Courts can reverse or vacate an ALJ's credibility findings only when the findings are "patently wrong" (Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413-14 (7th Cir. 2008)), but ALJs commit reversible error when they ground their credibility determinations upon "errors of ...


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