United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
DANIEL J. PETERSON, Claimant,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JEFFREY T. GILBERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Daniel J. Peterson (“Claimant”) seeks review of
the final decision of Respondent Nancy Berryhill, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security (“the
Commissioner”), denying Claimant's application for
Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”)
under Title XVI of the Social Security Act
(“Act”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and
Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the
jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all
proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 8.]
The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment
[ECF Nos. 21 and 28] pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 56. For the reasons stated below, Claimant's
Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 23] is granted, and the
Commissioner's Motion [ECF No. 28] is denied. The
decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the case is
remanded for further proceedings consistent with this
Memorandum Opinion and Order.
8, 2014, Claimant filed an application for SSI, alleging a
disability onset date of November 1, 2012. (R. 14.) This
application was denied initially and upon reconsideration,
after which Claimant requested an administrative hearing
before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”).
(Id.) On February 1, 2016, Claimant, represented by
a non-attorney representative, appeared and testified at an
administrative hearing before ALJ Karen Sayon. (R. 29-69.)
The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert
(“VE”) Ronald Malik. (Id.)
23, 2016, the ALJ denied Claimant's application for SSI,
based on a finding that she was not disabled under the Act.
(R. 14-23.) The opinion followed the five-step evaluation
process required by Social Security Regulations
(“SSR”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one,
the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity (“SGA”) since the application
date of May 8, 2014. (R. 16.) At step two, the ALJ found that
Claimant had the severe impairments of mild aortic stenosis
with moderate aortic insufficiency. (Id.) The ALJ
further found that Claimant had the non-severe impairments of
hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and cervical and thoracic
degenerative disc disease. (Id.) At step three, the
ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the
severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§
416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (R. 17.)
then assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) and concluded Claimant had the RFC to
perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 CFR
416.967. (R. 17.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at
step four that Claimant could not perform any past relevant
work. (R. 709.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that
there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that Claimant could perform. (R. 22.)
Specifically, the ALJ found Claimant could work as a packer,
order picker, or machine offbearer. (R. 65.) Because of this
determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled
under the Act. (R. 23.) The Appeals Council declined to
review the matter on October 24, 2016, making the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner and,
therefore, reviewable by this Court under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). See Haynes v. Baumhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626
(7th Cir. 2005).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final
decision if the Appeals Council denies a request for review.
Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). Under
such circumstances, the district court reviews the decision
of the ALJ. (Id.) Judicial review is limited to
determining whether the decision is supported by substantial
evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the
correct legal standards in reaching his or her decision.
Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir.
2009). The reviewing court may enter a judgment
“affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the
[Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a
rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable
mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 42 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A
“mere scintilla” of evidence is not enough.
Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir.
2002). Even where there is adequate evidence in the record to
support the decision, the findings will not be upheld if the
ALJ does not “build an accurate and logical bridge from
the evidence to the conclusion.” Berger v.
Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). In other
words, if the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary
support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot
stand. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th
Cir. 2009). Though the standard of review is deferential, a
reviewing court must “conduct a critical review of the
evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's
decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665
(7th Cir. 2008). It may not, however, “displace the
ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence.”
Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).
appeal, Claimant asserts that the ALJ made four errors.
First, Claimant argues that the ALJ improperly categorized
his degenerative disc disease as a non-severe impairment.
Second, Claimant argues that the ALJ erred by failing to
submit evidence to medical scrutiny and, instead, reached her
own conclusions regarding medical imaging. Third, Claimant
contends that the ALJ erred by giving non-examining state
agency medical consultants' opinions great weight.
Finally, Claimant argues that the ALJ's evaluation of
Claimant's subjective allegations was legally
insufficient. The Court finds that the ALJ did err in failing
to submit a potentially decisive MRI to medical scrutiny and
that, as a result of this error, the ALJ erred in her
assessment by categorizing Claimant's degenerative disc
disease as non-severe, improperly weighed the medical opinion
evidence, and improperly assessed Claimant's subjective
allegations and credibility.
relies heavily on the medical opinions of the state agency
medical consultants, Dr. Young-Ja Kim and Dr. Phillip Galle,
giving their opinions great weight. (R. 21.) Dr. Kim
completed a medical source statement on October 9, 2014, and
Dr. Galle affirmed Dr. Kim's assessment on August 27,
2015. (R.73, 84.) However, Claimant underwent an MRI on
November 25, 2015. (R. 396.) This MRI revealed multiple
findings along with a final impression of “multilevel
degenerative disc disease.” (R. 396.) The ALJ did not
submit this new evidence to the state agency medical
consultants as she should have done, despite its showing of
increased findings in Claimant's condition. See Goins
v. Colvin, 764 F.3d 677, 680 (7th Cir. 2014) (finding
that an ALJ's critical failure was her failure to obtain
a medical report on the results of an MRI that was new and
“potentially decisive medical evidence.”).
Dr. Kim's nor Dr. Galle's findings show an impairment
of multilevel degenerative disc disease, as those findings
were not revealed until the November 25, 2015 MRI. (R. 73,
84.) The ALJ reached her own conclusions about the findings
of the November 25, 2015 MRI and whether it showed any clear
limitations for Claimant. The Seventh Circuit often has
reminded the Commissioner that administrative law judges may
not play doctor and make their own medical findings. See
Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 722 (7th Cir. 2014)
(stating “ALJs are required to rely on expert opinions
instead of determining the significance of particular medical
findings themselves.”); Rohan v. Chater, 98
F.3d 966, 970 (7th Cir. 1996) (“ALJs must not succumb
to the temptation to play doctor and make their own
independent medical findings.”).
the ALJ gives the November 2015 MRI no more consideration
than three sentences, in which she concludes that its
findings contrast with the two treating physicians'
opinions regarding Claimant's physical limitations, as
well as bolster the findings of the state agency medical
consultants. (R. 20-22.) The ALJ is in no position to make