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Aranda v. Berryhill

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

May 30, 2018

MARIA ARANDA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge.

         Over three and a half years ago, Maria Aranda filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§416(i), 423, 1382c(3)(A). (Administrative Record (R.) 173-76, 177-82). She claimed that she became disabled as of February 28, 2014, and was unable to work due to osteoarthritis in both hands, torn ligaments in her legs, and obesity. (R. 213, 216). Over the course of the ensuing three years, Ms. Aranda'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. Aranda filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Ms. Aranda asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         I.

         Ms. Aranda is 50 years old, and was 48 at the time of the ALJ's decision. She has a solid work history, most recently as a property manager for eight years until February of 2014. (R. 218). That job involved taking calls from residents and scheduling appointments, and doing building walkthroughs. (R. 38, 249). She also worked as a receptionist in a doctor's office, where she spent most of the day sitting, making phone calls, setting up appointments, and doing intake. (R. 251). Ms. Aranda has had at least a couple of surgeries - bilaterally - for carpal tunnel syndrome, which seemed to be successful, but after about a month, the pain in her hand and wrist became too much, and she had to stop working. (R. 40). She takes Naproxen for the pain, has occasional cortisone shots, and wears wrist braces. (R. 41). She can't brush her teeth or her hair on her own. (R. 46). Her children cook her meals; she starting dropping dishes and pans about a year before her administrative hearing. (R. 47). She is able to do some housework - laundry, sweeping - but her children helped with that as well. (R. 48). She also has trouble getting around because of the pain in her knees and being overweight. (R. 50-52). And, she gets migraines a couple times a month. (R. 53-54).

         After an administrative hearing - at which Ms. Aranda, represented by counsel, and a medical expert and a vocational expert all testified - the ALJ determined she was not disabled. The ALJ found that Ms. Aranda had severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, severe osteoarthritis, and severe obesity. (R. 19). The ALJ found that her knee problems - x-rays showed increasing small right joint effusion with increasing mild degenerative changes and mild left degenerative changes (R. 715) - and her migraines were not severe. (R. 20). None of Ms. Aranda'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. 20-21).

         The ALJ then determined that Ms. Aranda could perform sedentary work, “except” that she could occasionally lift ten pounds and frequently lift less that ten pounds; stand/walk for six hours; sit for six hours; occasionally push or pull with her upper extremities; occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and occasionally handle, finger, and feel bilaterally. (R. 21). In making this residual functional capacity finding, the ALJ essentially adopted the opinion of the medical expert that testified at the hearing. (R. 24). In order to dismiss Ms. Aranda's complaints that she was unable to return to work due to the pain in her hands, the ALJ pointed to some reports from shortly after Ms. Aranda's carpal tunnel surgery in April-May 2014 and April 2016 that the ALJ said showed Ms. Aranda “could often make a full fist, exhibited full range of motion and her sensation was present to light touch in the radial, ulnar, and medial nerve distribution.” (R. 23). The ALJ also stated that Ms. Aranda's hearing testimony that her wrist pain increased around September 2015 was inconsistent with her report to a physician in March 2016 that her carpal tunnel symptoms had returned the previous month. (R. 23).

         Relying on the testimony of the vocational expert from the administrative hearing, the ALJ determined that, while Ms. Aranda could no longer perform her past work as a property manager, she could nevertheless perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy: call out operator (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) 237.367-014), and surveillance system monitor (DOT 379.367-010). (R. 26). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Aranda was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (R. 26).

         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.” 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); 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). 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 Minger v. Berryhill, F.Supp.3d, 2018 WL 1887300 at n.1 (N.D.Ill. 2018).

         III.

         We begin with the ALJ's assessment of Ms. Aranda's complaints. As already noted, she found that Ms. Aranda's allegations about the pain and limitations due to her carpal tunnel syndrome were “not consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (R. 22). The ALJ focused on a few reports from April-May of 2014 - not long after Ms. Aranda's carpal tunnel surgeries and trigger release and ganglion cyst surgeries - and from April 2016. (R. 22). She said those reports undermined Ms. Aranda's claims of pain in her hands because they show Ms. Aranda could make a fist and had full range of motion and sensation to light touch. (R. 23). But when one goes beyond the ALJ's summary of those reports and reviews the reports themselves, there is really nothing in them to undermine Ms. Aranda's complaints. The ALJ appears to have cherry-picked a couple of positive signs here or there or even to have misread these reports altogether. See Gerstner v. Berryhill, 879 F.3d 257, 262 (7th Cir. 2018)(ALJ improperly fixated on select portions of treatment notes); Meuser v. Colvin, 838 F.3d 905, 912 (7th Cir. 2016)(“An ALJ cannot recite only the evidence that supports his conclusion while ignoring contrary evidence.”); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 301 (7th Cir. 2010)(“An ALJ may not selectively discuss portions of a physician's report that support a finding of non-disability while ignoring other portions that suggest a disability.”).

         The first of the reports the ALJ cited, the report from April 14, 2014, states that pain was returning in both wrists and that there was pain when doing normal activities. (R. 332). There was pain in both hands with range of motion. (R. 333). Fingers were stiff and there was general tenderness in the wrists. (R. 333). The report from May 2014 noted swelling in both wrists, tenderness, and painful and limited range of motion bilaterally. (R. 621). The pain continued to worsen through August of 2014 and by November 2014, she could no not make a fist with either hand. (R. 354, 364). The March 2016 report cited by the ALJ noted soreness, tenderness, and triggering on the right hand and wrist and stiffness, soreness, and tenderness in the left hand and wrist. It was severe enough that Ms. Aranda's physician gave her bilateral lidocaine injections. (R. 655). There was still pain noted in the April 2016 report, and it was worse when Ms. Aranda used her hands. (R. 682).

         None of this calls into question Ms. Aranda's complaints about the pain in her hands and wrists, and the ALJ doesn't explain how it could. If anything, the fact that Ms Aranda has tried multiple surgeries, drugs, physical therapy and injections to relieve her pain bolsters her credibility. Stark v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 684, 687 (7th Cir. 2016); Stage v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 1121, 1125 (7th Cir. 2016); Carradine v. Barnhart,360 F.3d 751, 755 (7th Cir.2004). Moreover, the ALJ erred by focusing in this case on the medical evidence to discount Ms. Aranda's allegations. Stark ...


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