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Farley v. Berryhill

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

May 30, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Jeffrey Cole, Magistrate Judge

         Four years ago, Jennifer Farley filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§416(i), 423. (Administrative Record (R.) 178-179). She claimed that she became disabled as of April 1, 2010, and was unable to work due to degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, bulging/herniated disc, spondylitis, bone spurs, facet syndrome, myofascial pain syndrome, migraines, depression/anxiety/PTSD. (R. 226). Over the course of the ensuing three years, Ms. Farley'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. Farley 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. Farley asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.


         Ms. Farley was nearly 40 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 178). Up until about eight years ago, she had a solid work history, most recently in administrative support for a locomotive company. (R. 214-215). The medical record in this case is over 500 pages long. But as the plaintiff deems only about 20 of those pages relevant [Dkt. # 19, at 9, 15], and the Commissioner doesn't refer to a singe piece of medical evidence to support her position, a brief overview will suffice. Ms. Farley began having trouble with her back in 2009 (R. 39) and, as a result, underwent surgical fusion of her spine from L4 through S1. (R. 395). After surgery, she underwent a fourteen-month course of physical therapy, but gained no improvement in her back range of motion, and still had pain during movement. (R. 327-380). She has had injections multiple times in an effort to gain relief from her pain in her lower back above her fusion and in her sacroiliac joint. (R. 400, 405, 437, 452, 455, 458, 461, 464, 466, 469, 474, 581, 583). She has had a “bilateral lumbar radiofrequency ablation. She also takes oxycodone and hydrocodone, and uses lidocaine and declefenac-epilamine patches. (R. 404, 488). She has sought treatment for migraines and right shoulder pain, as well as depression and anxiety. (R. 403, 404, 626, 780).

         After an administrative hearing - at which Ms. Farley, represented by counsel, and a medical expert and a vocational expert testified - the ALJ determined she was not disabled. The ALJ found that Ms. Farley had two severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and status post spinal fusion. (R. 19). The ALJ found that her mood disorder caused her no more than a mild limitation in the area of maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, and so was a non-severe impairment. (R. 19-20). None of Ms. Farley'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. Farley could perform sedentary work as defined in the Commissioner's regulations. (R. 21). That means work that:

involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools. Although a sedentary job is defined as one which involves sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties. Jobs are sedentary if walking and standing are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are met.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1567. In addition, the ALJ found that Ms. Farley could occasionally climb ramps and stairs but could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She could occasionally be exposed to vibrations, moving machinery, or unprotected heights. And, the ALJ determined that “[d]ue to pain, she [was limited to performing] simple routine tasks requiring no more than short, simple instructions and simple work related decision-making with few workplace changes.” (R. 21). The ALJ essentially based this residual functional capacity finding on the testimony of the medical expert, who felt Ms. Farley could perform sedentary work with “occasional functional activities.” (R. 24, 46). She rejected the opinion of Ms. Farley's treating physician, saying it was based on Ms. Farley's subjective complaints and not on any medical findings. (R. 25).

         The ALJ also rejected Ms. Farley's allegations regarding her symptoms and limitations. She said they were “not entirely consistent with the medical record and the other evidence in the record . . . .” (R. 23). Relying on the testimony of the vocational expert from the administrative hearing, the ALJ determined that, while Ms. Farley could no longer perform her past work, but could nevertheless perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy: packer (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) 737.587-010), assembler (DOT 739.687-066), and inspector (DOT 669.687-014). (R. 27). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Farley was not disabled and not entitled to DIB. (R. 27).


         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.”).


         Social Security disability appeals nearly always involve the ...

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