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Bancolita v. Berryhill

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

June 7, 2018

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



         Four and a half years ago, Corazon Bancolita applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§416(i), 423. (Administrative Record (R.) 156-59). She claimed that she became disabled as of December 21, 2012, and was unable to work due to insulin dependent, type 2 diabetes and neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and cataracts. (R. 204). As almost four years went by, Ms. Bancolita'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. Bancolita 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. Bancolita asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.


         Ms. Bancolita is 58 years old, and was 54 when her insured status expired in March 2014. She has a solid work history (R. 185-86), including seventeen years working in the airline industry cleaning the cabins of planes. (R. 229). Most recently, until August 2012, she worked as a home caregiver, assisting disabled patients. (R. 227). That job was a taxing one, involving lifting patients and doing their housework. (R. 227). Ms. Bancolita has a number of medical problems. She has type 2 diabetes, which she has struggled with controlling and which has resulted in symptoms including neuropathy in her hands and feet and edema in her legs. (R. 292, 297, 326, 328, 329, 332, 334, 336, 369). She has carpal tunnel syndrome as well (R. 292, 329), and she is obese, with a BMI generally around 35. (R. 290-96). Perhaps not surprisingly, given all this, Ms. Bancolita began treatment for depression in July of 2015. (R. 344).

         After a sixteen-minute administrative hearing (R. 39, 50) - at which Ms. Bancolita, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified - the ALJ determined she was not disabled. The ALJ found that Ms. Bancolita had severe insulin-dependent diabetes, severe obesity, and severe bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (R. 25). The ALJ found that her depression did not qualify as a severe impairment because there was no record of complaints or symptoms prior to the expiration of her insured status. (R. 25). The ALJ concluded that none of Ms. Bancolita'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. 26).

         The ALJ then determined that Ms. Bancolita could perform “less than a full range of light work.” (R. 27). That meant she could stand or walk for six hours a day, and lift or carry up to 20 pounds. Stage v. Colvin, 812 F.3d 1121, 1124 (7th Cir. 2016). The ALJ added that she could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, could only occasionally - one-third of the day, SSR 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *5-6 (1983) - balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and could only occasionally - again, up to one-third of the day - use her hands for gross manipulation bilaterally. (R. 27). Along the way, the ALJ said that she found Ms. Bancolita's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [her] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for reasons explained in this decision.” (R. 28). The ALJ didn't say what symptoms or limiting effects Ms. Bancolita was alleging. (R. 28-29).

         The ALJ then noted that treatment had been routine and conservative, and summarized the medical evidence. (R. 28-29). She said she gave little weight to a statement from Ms. Bancolita's daughter because she was not a medical professional or impartial third party. (R. 29). She gave some weight to the opinions from state agency consultants, saying that she felt Ms. Bancolita was a bit more limited in gross manipulation. (R. 28). She gave no weight to the opinion from Ms. Bancolita's treating psychiatrist that Ms. Bancolita was disabled due to depression because treatment did not begin until after the expiration of Ms. Bancolita's insured status and the doctor's records did not show abnormal behavior. (R. 29). And, finally, the ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of Ms. Bancolita's treating physician because it did not cite to the medical record, did not indicate when Ms. Bancolita's insulin-dependence began, and did not jibe with treatment records. (R. 29). For example, the ALJ didn't believe Ms. Bancolita would need to lie down for three hours during the day because there was no “indication of her needing home health care or nursing home placement.” (R. 29).

         The ALJ then found that Ms. Bancolita could not perform her past work cleaning airplane cabins because it had been medium work and was now beyond her capacity for a limited range of light work. (R. 29). As an individual closely approaching advanced age, with a high school education, and no transferable job skills, Ms. Bancolita would be found “not disabled” under the Medical Vocational Guidelines if she had the capacity for a full range of light work. (R. 30). As she did not, the ALJ instead relied on the testimony of the vocational expert that Ms. Bancolita could still perform jobs like bakery line worker, fruit distributor, and dealer accounts investigator. (R. 30). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Bancolita was not disabled and not entitled to DIB under the Social Security Act. (R. 31).


         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.”).


         We have to begin with the ALJ's credibility finding - now called the evaluation of symptoms, SSR 16-3p - to the extent there was one. As already noted, the hearing in this case was just sixteen minutes long. The transcript of the testimony at the hearing covered just eleven pages (R. 40-50) and fewer than five of those transcribe Ms. Bancolita's testimony. So, we can make a pretty solid estimate that the ALJ spent fewer than eight minutes questioning Ms. Bancolita. During those few minutes, the ALJ asked her about her family, how much she weighed, her education, whether she served in the military, what kind of home she lived in, her children, whether she received public assistance, and her job history. The ALJ never once asked Ms. Bancolita about her impairments and certainly not about, as her decision puts it, “the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms.” (R. 28).

         “A well-settled proposition regarding social security disability hearings is that ‘[i]t is a basic obligation of the ALJ to develop a full and fair record.'” Thompson v. Sullivan, 933 F.2d 581, 585 (7th Cir. 1991). It would certainly seem that this obligation ought to include asking a claimant what's wrong with her or how she feels or what she able to do around the house. But, then again, not much can be accomplished in eight minutes. Indeed, courts have had issues with much longer hearings being too perfunctory and too superficial. See Lashley v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 708 F.2d 1048, 1052 (6th Cir. 1983)(“. . . the administrative law judge did not fulfill his responsibility in this case. The hearing was brief. It lasted a mere 25 minutes, and was fully transcribed in approximately 11 pages.”); Sears v. Bowen, 840 F.2d 394, 403 (7th Cir. 1988)(“. . . this appears to be a case where the ALJ relied too much on the fact that [the claimant] had an advocate acting on his behalf and failed to affirmatively develop a proper administrative record. As noted, the transcript is 29 pages long; the hearing lasted only 32 minutes.”); Novak v. Berryhill, No. 15 CV 50236, 2017 WL 1163733, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 29, 2017)(“The bottom line is that the substantive portion of plaintiff's and his mother's testimony covered roughly nine pages out of the 33-page transcript.”); McCaster v. Colvin, No. 12 C 4059, 2014 WL 2158967, at *9 (N.D. Ill. May 23, 2014)(“. . . the ALJ's questioning of [plaintiff] at the hearing was brief and perfunctory. The hearing lasted approximately 27 minutes and was recorded in fewer than 15 pages. . . . [plaintiff's] actual testimony was recorded in fewer than 12.”); Hull v. Colvin, No. 11 C 6589, 2013 WL 3771230, at *6 (N.D. Ill. July 17, 2013)(“The hearing, which lasted approximately 26 minutes, is recorded in 14 transcript ...

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