United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE THOMAS M. DURKIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
is a 59 year old individual who suffers from back pain
stemming from a work injury in January 2010. R.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.