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Sanders v. Berryhill

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

March 23, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge.

         Nearly four years ago, in April 2014, Gwendolyn Sanders filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and Disabled Widow's Benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§416(i), 423, 1382c(3)(A). (Administrative Record (R.) 301-310, 313-316). She claimed she was unable to work due to a host of problems: Addison's disease, moderate depression, hypothyroidism, pan-hypopituitarism, hepatitis C, migraine headaches, high blood pressure, and anxiety. (R. 339). Her applications made their way through the administrative process over the course of a little over three years, with her claim for benefits being denied at the initial and reconsideration levels, by an administrative law judge, and, finally, at the appeals council level on June 19, 2017. (R. 1-4). Ms. Sanders filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §405(g) seeking review of the denial of her claims for benefits, and it is the ALJ's decision that is before the court for review. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.955; 404.981.


         Ms. Sanders had previously worked for over 30 years as a maintenance administrator for the telephone company. (R. 340). That job required her to work on a computer, monitor technicians, and handle phone calls. She spent most of her day sitting, but did have to walk around a large office for 1 or 2 hours each day. (R. 340-341, 348). She never had to lift more than 10 pounds. (R. 341, 348).

         But, in 2009, Ms. Sanders was fired for tardiness. (R. 48). At her administrative hearing, she explained that, at that time, supervisors had changed quite a bit and no one knew her or knew her history. (R. 48). Her sister had recently died, she said, and she was under stress. (R. 49). The location of her office changed and it took her longer to get to work - at least an hour and a half every day. (R. 49, 57-58). Morever, driving to the new location, she would have to stop on the way and be sick to her stomach or go to the bathroom. (R. 49). Ms. Sanders explained that this was due to an issue with her pituitary gland that she had dealt with since 1980, but that had been exacerbated by the stress of her troubles at work and her sister's death. (R. 50). The condition was diagnosed as panhypopituitarism. (R. 876). The condition didn't affect her while she was at her desk, however; it was the motion of the car that upset her stomach. (R. 62-63).

         Ms. Sanders said she didn't look for another job with an easier commute because her skillset was unique to the phone company, and she had put in a lot of time with the company and wanted to retire with them. (R. 53). But with her health issues, she could not get to work on time at the new facility, even if she left early. (R. 55).

         Following the hearing, the ALJ reviewed the voluminous medical record - nearly 700 pages, which the ALJ spent 12 single-spaced pages summarizing - and determined that Ms. Sanders was not disabled. The ALJ did find that she had several severe impairments: adrenal gland disorders with thyroid and pituitary disorders, hepatitis C, and left knee dysfunction. (R. 13). Ms. Sanders had a number of other impairments that the ALJ felt were not severe: migraines, low back pain, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, acute renal failure, hypertension, obesity, and depression/anxiety disorder. (R. 14-15). The ALJ found that Ms. Sanders' mental impairments left her with mild restrictions on activitities of daily living and concentration, persistence and pace, but no limitations on social functioning. (R. 16).

         The ALJ waded through the several medical opinions in the record and didn't think much of them. He gave partial weight to the state DDS doctors' opinion that Ms. Sanders had no severe mental impairment, and little weight to their opinion that she had no medically determinable mental impairment. (R. 18). He gave some weight to the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Gregory Rudolph that Ms. Sanders' prognosis was limited because it was vague. (R. 19). He gave little weight to the opinion of examining psychologist Dr. Karina Bortnik that Ms. Sanders was disabled because it was vague and disability is a matter reserved to the Commissioner. (R. 19). The opinion of Dr. Kang-Yann Lin was assigned only partial weight because portions were not consistent with the record. (R. 20). Finally, the ALJ gave limited weight to the opinion of treating psychiatrist Dr. Timothy T'so because it was too remote in time. (R. 20).

         The ALJ went on to find that Ms. Sanders could perform sedentary work except, lifting/carrying 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; sitting for 6 hours out of 8 hours; standing for 2 hours out of 8 hours; walking for 2 hours out of 8 hours; pushing and pulling as much as the individual can lift/carry; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; never being exposed to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; and never operating a motor vehicle. (R. 22). He found that Ms. Sanders' allegation regarding the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her impairments were not entirely consistent with the medical record. (R. 23). Given Ms Sanders' capacity for a limited range of sedentary work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert to determine that Ms. Sanders could perform her past sedentary, semi-skilled work as a maintenance administrator. (R. 26). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Sanders was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (R. 26-27).


         If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court on judicial review must uphold that decision even if the court might have decided the case differently in the first instance. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 836 (7th Cir. 2014). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court reviews the record as a whole but does not attempt to substitute its judgment for the ALJ's by reweighing the evidence, resolving material conflicts, or reconsidering facts or the credibility of witnesses. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837. “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is entitled to benefits, ” the court must defer to the Commissioner's resolution of that conflict. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir.1997). See also Schloesser v. Berryhill, 870 F.3d 712, 717 (7th Cir. 2017).

         But, in the Seventh Circuit, the ALJ also has an obligation to build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result to afford the claimant meaningful judicial review of the administrative findings. Varga v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 809, 813 (7th Cir. 2015); O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir.2010); we cannot uphold a decision by an administrative agency, any more than we can uphold Lomax v. Astrue, 2010 WL 337654, at *7 (N.D. Ill. 2010(discussing the meaning and origin of the phrase). The court has to be able to trace the path of the ALJ's reasoning from evidence to conclusion. Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 938 (7th Cir. 2015); Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 812 (7th Cir. 2011). Even if the court agrees with the ultimate result, the case must be remanded if the ALJ fails in his or her obligation to build that logical bridge. Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 1996)(“. . . we cannot uphold a decision by an administrative agency, any more than we can uphold a decision by a district court, if, while there is enough evidence in the record to support the decision, the reasons given by the trier of fact do not build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result.”). See also discussion in Lomax v. Astrue, 2010 WL 337654, at *7.


         As already noted, the record in this case is, like most Social Security disability cases, massive and will only be discussed insofar as it pertains to various points that need to be made about the ALJ's decision. Indeed, the parties point to barely a dozen pages of the 650 pages of medical evidence as pertinent to their positions. [ Dkt. # 17, at 10-18; Dkt. #18, at 3-6]. Suffice it to say that Ms. Sanders suffers from a constellation of medical and psychological problems. But, the main issue with the ALJ's decision is that the ALJ failed to adequately account for the severity of her mental limitations and consider ...

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