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Tapia v. Berryhill

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

May 14, 2018

CARLOS TAPIA, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Carlos Tapia brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Tapia's claim for social security disability benefits based on his back pain. Tapia seeks an award of benefits, or in the alternative, remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Tapia has filed a motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 14. For the following reasons, that motion is granted and the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion and order.


         Tapia is a 59 year old individual who suffers from back pain stemming from a work injury in January 2010. R. 40.[1] Tapia also suffers from diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and glaucoma. Tapia worked at his previous employer, a warehouse, for 25 years loading trucks, filling orders, stock keeping, and recovering bins. R. 45. Following the injury, Tapia was placed on light duty for a temporary period, but was ultimately terminated with severance in March 2013 because his employer could not accommodate light duty for long periods of time. R. 48.

         Dr. Pelagia E. Kouloumberis, a neurologist, noted that Tapia has significant back pain and gave him a permanent work restriction against standing for long periods. R. 309. In July 2013, Dr. Kimberly Middleton, a specialist in family medicine, diagnosed Tapia with lumbar spinal stenosis and noted his pain would likely preclude him from performing work that requires constant or repetitive standing, bending, twisting, pulling, and pushing. R. 318.

         The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) determined that Tapia has the residual functional capacity to perform light work with several restrictions against climbing and a handful of postural restrictions. Because the ALJ found that Tapia was capable of performing past relevant work as a warehouse checker, he found Tapia was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act, 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(f). R. 29. On June 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Tapia's request for review of the ALJ's decision. On August 26, 2016, Tapia filed this action for judicial review requesting reversal of the ALJ's decision, or alternatively, a remand for rehearing pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Legal Standard

         Judicial review of a final decision of the Social Security Administration is generally deferential. The Social Security Act requires the court to sustain the administrative law judge's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The court should review the entire administrative record, but must “not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). “However, this does not mean that [the court] will simply rubber-stamp the [ALJ's] decision without a critical review of the evidence.” Id. A decision may be reversed if the ALJ's findings “are not supported by substantial evidence or if the ALJ applied an erroneous legal standard.” Id. In addition, the court will reverse if the ALJ does not “explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

         “Although a written evaluation of each piece of evidence or testimony is not required, neither may the ALJ select and discuss only that evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion.” Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994); see Scrogham v. Colvin, 765 F.3d 685, 698 (7th Cir. 2014) (“This ‘sound-bite' approach to record evaluation is an impermissible methodology for evaluating the evidence.”). Additionally, the ALJ “has a duty to fully develop the record before drawing any conclusions, ” Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 634 (7th Cir. 2007), and deference in review is “lessened . . . where the ALJ's findings rest on an error of fact or logic.” Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). In oft-quoted words, the Seventh Circuit has said that the ALJ “must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. When the ALJ has satisfied these requirements, the responsibility for deciding whether the claimant is disabled falls on the Social Security Administration, and, if “conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, ” the ALJ's decision must be affirmed. Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178, 181 (7th Cir. 1990).


         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 423 and 1382c, provides that an individual is under a disability if he or she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to any physical and/or mental impairment which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months or which can be expected to result in death. To determine whether an individual is disabled, an ALJ must follow the five-step analysis provided by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, if the ALJ determines that the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity, ” then the claimant is not disabled and no further analysis is necessary. If the claimant is not engaged in gainful activity, at step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has such a severe impairment, and the impairment is one provided for in the Social Security regulation listings, then at step three, the ALJ must find that the claimant is disabled. If the ALJ finds that the impairment is not in the listings, then at step four, the ALJ must assess the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) the claimant continues to possess despite the claimant's impairment. If the claimant's RFC enables the claimant to continue his or her “past relevant work, ” then the ALJ must find that the claimant is not disabled. But if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, at step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant “can make an adjustment to other work.” If the claimant cannot make such an adjustment, then the claimant is disabled.

         Here, the ALJ determined that Tapia had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 6, 2013, and that he had severe lumbar spine impairments. Although the ALJ found that Tapia has severe impairments, he noted that they did not meet the criteria for a “disabled” finding at step three. The ALJ then moved on to assess Tapia's RFC. The ALJ determined that Tapia could perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), which requires some lifting up to 20 pounds, but could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The ALJ also found that Tapia could occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. The ALJ did not include any additional weight lifting restrictions (beyond the 20 pound limitation set by the regulation), and he did not include any restriction against standing for extended periods without rest periods. R. 24. Because of the RFC determination, the ALJ found that Tapia could perform his past relevant work as a warehouse checker. As a result, Tapia was not disabled.

         Tapia does not challenge the ALJ's decision at steps one, two, or three. Rather, Tapia argues that the ALJ erred in determining Tapia's RFC by (1) failing to defer to the opinions of his treating physician; (2) failing to properly weigh Tapia's credibility; (3) failing to consider all of Tapia's impairments, in combination, in determining RFC; and (4) improperly analyzing the vocational assessment. Tapia argues the ALJ should have limited him to sedentary work, rather than light work, because he could not lift more than 15 pounds, and could stand only for an hour at a time before needing to sit down.

         A. ...

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