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Lopez v. Berryhill

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

August 2, 2017

PAULA A. LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          M. David Weisman Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Paula A. Lopez appeals the Commissioner's decision denying her application for Social Security benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on January 22, 2013. (R. 97.) Her application was denied initially on May 8, 2013, and again on reconsideration on October 25, 2013. (R. 74, 97.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on March 26, 2015. (R. 17-73.) On May 5, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's application. (R. 122-41.) The Appeals Council denied review (R. 1-3), leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Discussion

         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 her alleged disability onset date of October 1, 2006. (R. 124.) At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of “asthma; dermatitis; depression and anxiety.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 125.) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have any past relevant work but had the RFC to perform light work with additional restrictions, and thus was not disabled. (R. 126-27, 140-41.)

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of Dr. Chadha, who has treated plaintiff since November 2006. (See R. 1074.) Dr. Chadha's “opinion” consists of a list of plaintiff's conditions (asthma, anxiety, depression, GERD [Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease], and sleeping difficulty) and symptoms (difficulty breathing, feelings of anxiousness, sadness and depression, abdominal pain, and inability to sleep), and the following statement: “[Plaintiff] is mostly limited by her mental health. (Depression) I don't think she can handle 40 hr a week. She has underlying lung disease as well, severe asthma.” (R. 1074-75.)

         Whether this cursory statement even constitutes a “medical opinion” is debatable, though the ALJ characterized it as one. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(1), 416.927(a)(1) (“Medical opinions are statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do despite impairment(s), and your physical or mental restrictions.”). Presuming Dr. Chadha's statement is a “medical opinion, ” however, an ALJ must give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight only 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); Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011). “If an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the regulations require the ALJ to consider the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of examination, the physician's specialty, the types of tests performed, and the consistency and supportability of the physician's opinion.” Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2009); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).

         Though the ALJ acknowledged that Dr. Chadha was plaintiff's “long-term treat[er], ” the ALJ gave “little weight” to Dr. Chadha's opinion because:

[It] is not supported by treatment notes or the record overall. . . . [W]hile Dr. Chadha noted the claimant's impairments of anxiety and depression, there is no evidence that Dr. Chadha performed any psychological or mental evaluation or testing of the claimant's functioning or limitations with respect to these conditions. There is no indication he treated the claimant for these conditions aside from prescribing medication for the claimant as he referred the claimant to psychiatry . . . . Dr. Chadha noted that the claimant's physical impairments are not disabling . . . . Further, the opinion is vague, unsupported and is couched as a purely speculative guess compared to the definitiveness of [the opinions of the medical expert] Dr. Munoz and the DDS state agency experts.

(R. 139.)

         Plaintiff argues that this assessment is flawed because it does not explicitly address every factor set forth in the regulations. The Seventh Circuit, ...


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