United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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)
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
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
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).
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 ...