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Vandermolen v. Berryhill

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

January 23, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Paul Vandermolen (“Plaintiff”), on behalf of his now-deceased wife, Frances M. Czarnecki (“Czarnecki”), seeks to overturn the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Czarnecki's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1381(a). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Plaintiff filed a brief explaining why the case should be reversed or remanded. The Commissioner responded with a competing motion for summary judgment in support of affirming the decision. After careful review of the record, the Court now grants the Commissioner's motion.


         Czarnecki applied for DIB and SSI in September 2009, alleging that she became disabled on August 1, 2007 due to arthritis, a heart condition, a fatty liver, back problems, and panic attacks. (R. 153-62, 179). Born on February 6, 1961, Czarnecki was 48 years old at the time of the applications, with a date last insured of September 30, 2010. (R. 691). She graduated from high school and lived with her husband until she passed away on September 29, 2015, due to cardiac arrest resulting from an apparent drug overdose. (R. 35, 705, 984). Between 1993 and August 2007, Czarnecki worked as a waitress for several restaurants, and also held brief jobs as a school bus aide (one month in late 2006) and a sales associate at a retail clothing store (3 months in early 2007). (R. 180). After the August 1, 2007 alleged disability onset date, Czarnecki worked part-time as a waitress and at another retail clothing store, but those jobs ended due to her physical limitations and constituted unsuccessful work attempts. (R. 36-38, 179, 691).

         The Social Security Administration denied Czarnecki's applications at all levels of review, and she appealed to the district court, which affirmed the decision. (R. 70-78, 91-98); Czarnecki v. Colvin, No. 12 C 7996, 2014 WL 701260 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 24, 2014). On January 5, 2015, the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings, finding that Administrative Law Judge Karen Sayon (the “ALJ”): (1) failed to properly weigh the opinions from Czarnecki's treating psychiatrist, Brendan Beresford, M.D., and her treating internists, Nayeh Mirshed, M.D., and Win Myint, M.D.; and (2) erred in evaluating Czarnecki's statements regarding the limiting effects of her symptoms. (R. 827-38); Czarnecki v. Colvin, 595 F. App'x 635 (7th Cir. 2015). On September 3, 2015, the Appeals Council vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case to the ALJ “for further proceedings consistent with the order of the court.” (R. 841). The ALJ was instructed to offer Czarnecki “the opportunity for a hearing, take any further action needed to complete the administrative record, and issue a new decision.” (Id.).

         The ALJ held a hearing on December 16, 2015, by which time Czarnecki was deceased. Her husband, now the named Plaintiff in the case, appeared with counsel and provided testimony along with vocational expert Clifford Brady. (R. 756-94). On March 3, 2016, the ALJ found that Czarnecki's degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine, spinal stenosis, levorotoscoliosis of the thoracolumbar spine (abnormal leftward curvature of the upper and lower spine), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, and history of substance abuse disorder were all severe impairments, but they did not meet or equal any Listed impairment. (R. 692-96).[2] After reviewing the medical evidence in detail, the ALJ concluded that Czarnecki was not disabled at any time prior to her death on September 29, 2015, because she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a significant number of light jobs available in the national economy with the following limitations: no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional crouching, stooping, and climbing of ramps and stairs; and no concentrated exposure to hazards or respiratory irritants. Czarnecki was also restricted to work involving simple instructions; routine repetitive tasks; occasional decision making and changes in the workplace; and no fast-paced production requirements. (R. 697-713). The Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction, 20 C.F.R. § 404.984, and Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         In support of his request for reversal or remand, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ: (1) failed to follow the Seventh Circuit's findings with respect to Dr. Myint's opinion; (2) erred in weighing the other opinion evidence concerning Czarnecki's physical limitations; (3) erred in assessing Czarnecki's mental functional capacity; and (4) failed to properly evaluate the testimony regarding the limiting effects of Czarnecki's symptoms. For reasons discussed in this opinion, the Court finds that the ALJ did not make any errors and her decision is supported by substantial evidence.


         A. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether Plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Nor may it “displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence or making credibility determinations.” Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)). The court's task is to determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, which is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Skinner, 478 F.3d at 841).

         In making this determination, the court must “look to whether the ALJ built an ‘accurate and logical bridge' from the evidence to her conclusion that the claimant is not disabled.” Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008)). Where the Commissioner's decision “‘lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, ' a remand is required.” Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002)).

         B. Five-Step Inquiry

         To recover DIB or SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, a claimant must establish that she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. Keener v. Astrue, No. 06-CV-0928-MJR, 2008 WL 687132, at *1 (S.D. Ill. Mar. 10, 2008).[3] A person is disabled if she is unable to perform “any substantial gainful activity by reason of a 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); Crawford v. Astrue, 633 F.Supp.2d 618, 630 (N.D. Ill. 2009). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the ALJ conducts a standard five-step inquiry: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Is the claimant's impairment severe? (3) Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation? and (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work? See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000).

         C. Analysis

         1. Dr. Myint's Opinions

         Plaintiff first objects to the ALJ's decision to give little weight to the opinions from Czarnecki's treating internist, Dr. Myint. A treating source 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 record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); see Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010). An ALJ must offer “good reasons” for discounting a treating physician's opinion, Scott, 647 F.3d at 739, and then determine what weight to give it considering (1) the length of the treatment relationship and frequency of examination, (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) the degree to which the opinion is supported by medical signs and laboratory findings, (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, (5) whether the opinion was from a specialist, and (6) other factors brought to the attention of the ALJ. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(6); see Simila, 573 F.3d at 515.

         On March 15, 2010, Dr. Myint wrote a letter stating that Czarnecki had moderate to severe degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine with levoscoliosis of the thoracolumbar spine and associated spinal stenosis. He opined that Czarnecki could not sit, stand, or walk more than 10 minutes, lift more than 5 pounds, or “keep meaningful job.” (R. 393). On July 21, 2010, Dr. Myint completed an Arthritis RFC Questionnaire indicating that Czarnecki could not: walk more than 1/2 a block without rest or severe pain; sit more than 20 to 30 minutes before needing to get up; stand more than 15 minutes before needing to sit down; or sit, stand and walk for even 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. (R. 506). Dr. Myint ...

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