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Minger v. Berryhill

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

April 20, 2018

KELLI L. MINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge

         Kelli Minger seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner (“Commissioner”) of the Social Security Administration (“Agency”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §1382c(3)(A). Ms. Minger filed her application for benefits on January 15, 2014. She claimed she has been unable to work since February 2002 due to migraines, ADHD, depression, and joint pain. (Administrative Record (R.), 225, 312). Over the course of the ensuing three years and three months, Ms. Minger's application was denied at every level of administrative review: initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge (ALJ), and appeals council. It is the ALJ's decision that is before the court for review. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.955; 404.981. Ms. Minger filed suit under 42 USC § 405(g), and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Ms. Minger asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         I.

         Ms. Minger comes to federal court having amassed a medical record of more than 500 pages of medical treatment, in the main for psychological impairments. Treatment has included a few multi-day, partial psychiatric hospitalizations for symptoms ranging from suicidal ideation to wanting to hurt her baby. (R. 339, 348, 350-53). Ms. Minger has a sporadic work history, with brief periods of employment at mostly fast food emporiums; places like Burger King, Steak and Shake, Jamba Juice, and the like. For one reason or another - altercations with fellow employees, absenteeism, pregnancy, whatever - these jobs were short-lived. (52-58, 64-65). At the time of her hearing, she was on suspension from a house-cleaning job after a set of reindeer antlers went missing. (R. 66-68). She was also homeless, living in her car, and had given up care of her two children to her mother. (R. 73, 77-78). Her mother thought she was just lazy, but Ms. Minger's treating psychologist explained that her daughter had “several significant mental illnesses and that some of what her mother views as [Ms. Minger] being lazy is more related to her mental illnesses . . . .” (R. 674).

         After an administrative hearing - at which Ms. Minger, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified - the ALJ determined she was not disabled. He started off on the wrong foot, by asserting that Ms. Minger claimed she was disabled from birth (R. 23, 50). That's not the case; she clearly claimed her disability began on February 1, 2002. (R. 225). It's unclear whether this error played a role in how the ALJ thought about Ms. Minger's claim. In any event, the ALJ went on to find that Ms. Minger had a number of severe impairments: bipolar disorder, panic disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and borderline personality disorder. (R. 25). These mental impairments resulted in moderate restrictions in social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and a mild restriction on daily activities. (R. 29). The ALJ found that a number of other impairments - migraines, obesity, asthma, and sacroiliitis - were not severe. (R. 26-28). None of Ms. Minger's impairments, singly or in combination, amounted to a condition that met or equaled an impairment assumed to be disabling in the Commissioner's listings. (R. 28).

         The ALJ then determined that Ms. Minger had no physical limitations on her ability to work, meaning she could perform even very heavy work requiring her to lift more than 100 pounds at a time and frequently lift and carry over 50 pounds at a time. (R. 31); 20 CFR §416.967. But, given Ms. Minger's mental impairments, the ALJ found her limited to work that involved only “simple tasks in a goal-oriented environment where she would not be subject to fast-paces production rate requirements.” (R. 31). She was also limited to no more than occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. (R. 41). Her non-severe impairments imposed no additional limitations on her ability to work. (R. 35). The ALJ also found that Ms. Minger's allegations about the effect her symptoms had on her ability to work, and the extent of those effects, were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence. In addition, her allegations were undermined by her poor work record, her ability to work despite being allegedly disabled, her ability to perform limited daily activities, and the fact that she was six months pregnant at the time of her application (R. 33-34).

         Relying on the testimony of the vocational expert from the administrative hearing, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy: cleaner II (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) 919.687-014), industrial cleaner (DOT 381.687-018), and laboratory equipment cleaner (DOT 381.687-022). (R. 36). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Minger was not disabled and not entitled to SSI. (R. 37).

         II.

         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. 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); Schloesser v. Berryhill, 870 F.3d 712, 717 (7th Cir. 2017)

         But, in the Seventh Circuit, the ALJ also has an obligation to build what Judge Posner called a “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). The court must be able to trace the path of the ALJ's reasoning from the evidence to the conclusion. Even if the court agrees with the 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.”).[1]

         III.

         We begin with problems that were raised earlier in the court's initial review of the record. Ms. Minger is obese and, more recently, morbidly obese. (R. 28, 358, 507). As was noted in the initial review, the ALJ felt this was not a severe impairment, which is at least a questionable characterization as non-severe impairment is a designation reserved for “de minimis” impairments or “slight abnormalities that only minimally impact a claimant's basic work activities.” O'Connor-Spinner v. Colvin, 832 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir. 2016). Along with obesity, the ALJ also dismissed Ms. Minger's migraines[2], asthma, and sacroiliitis as non-severe, and determined they had absolutely no adverse effect on her ability to work. (R. 26-28). Setting aside for the moment the migraines and the asthma, the objective medical evidence shows that Ms. Minger has mild disc space narrowing at ¶ 5-S1 (R. 732), has been prescribed muscle relaxers and narcotics like Tramadol for pain (R. 33), cf. Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 755 (7th Cir.2004) (physicians' prescription of strong pain medications substantiated claimant's pain allegations), and has undergone injections. (R. 83). Juxtapose the obesity and the back impairment and pain against the ALJ's determination that Ms. Mingle can perform heavy work, and the ALJ's “logical” bridge crumbles. It certainly seems illogical.

         Throw in migraines and asthma and the ALJ's finding that these impairments have absolutely no effect on Ms. Mingle's ability to work, even in combination, and that bridge gets even shakier. See Murphy v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 811, 817-18 (7th Cir. 2014)(“In making a proper RFC determination, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence in the record, ‘even [limitations] that are not severe, . . . .”); Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 860 (7th Cir. 2014)(ALJ must consider the effect of both non-severe and severe impairments in combination); SSR 96-8P (“In assessing RFC, the adjudicator must consider limitations and restrictions imposed by all of an individual's impairments, even those that are not ‘severe.' While a ‘not severe' impairment(s) standing alone may not significantly limit an individual's ability to do basic work activities, it may--when considered with limitations or restrictions due to other impairments--be critical to the outcome of a claim.”).

         Then there is the ALJ's attempt to account for Ms. Minger's moderate limitation on her ability to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace with a restriction to “simple tasks . . . where she would not be subject to fast-paced production requirements.” (R. 31). This issue was raised in both the initial review order and Ms. Minger's brief. As the initial review order pointed out, the Seventh Circuit is on record that there is no authority, and that it is no more than speculation, “that eliminating jobs with strict production quotas or a fast pace may serve as a proxy for including, as part of the claimant's mental residual functional capacity, a moderate limitation on concentration, persistence, and ...


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