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Sanders v. Berryhill

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

July 23, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Deborah Sanders filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C § 636(c), and Plaintiff filed a request to remand for additional proceedings before the ALJ. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c) and 405(g). For the reasons stated below, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on August 4, 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. (R. at 29). The ALJ also heard testimony from Grace Gianforte, a vocational expert (VE). (Id. at 77). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's re- quest for both DIB and SSI on October 26, 2015. (R. at 10-21). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through March 31, 2007 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of September 1, 2003. (Id. at 12). At step two, for purposes of SSI, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: asthma, sleep apnea, and obesity. (Id. at 13). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 15). The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC)[1] and determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work except that she:

can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; be on her feet standing/walking about 6 hours in an 8 hour workday and sit about 6 hours, with normal rest periods; is unable to work at heights, climb ladders, or frequently negotiate stairs; may only occasionally crouch, kneel, or crawl; should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, dust, odors, gases or poorly ventilated areas; and should avoid operation of moving or dangerous machinery. (R. at 16).

         The ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work as a bobber because it did not require performance of work-related activities precluded by Plaintiff's RFC. (Id. at 19). Based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the VE's testimony that Plaintiff is capable of performing work as a stock checker, information clerk, and cafeteria attendant, the ALJ determined at step five that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Id. at 20). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from September 1, 2003 through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 21). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 8, 2017. (R. at 1-4). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villa-no v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).


         A Court reviewing the Commissioner's final decision may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. The Court's task is “limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004). It “must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). The ALJ's decision must be explained “with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barn-hart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it “must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision.” Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). “[T]he ALJ must identify the relevant evidence and build a ‘logical bridge' between that evidence and the ultimate determination.” Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 721 (7th Cir. 2014). Where the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).


         Plaintiff argues that remand is warranted because the ALJ erred in his analysis of Plaintiff's RFC, physician assistant's opinion and Plaintiff's symptom statements. The Court agrees that the ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's statements about her symptoms and of the treating physician assistant's opinion were flawed.[2]

         A. Symptom Evaluation

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff testified that she ended her prior work in childcare because she was dozing off during the day, even while standing, and her legs would swell up while walking; she has daily headaches, lies down for about an hour when she has a headache, and believes her headaches are a side effect of her medication; her sister cooks dinner for Plaintiff and her kids because Plaintiff falls asleep or forgets while cooking; she only is able to grocery shop with family assistance; she stopped driving because she was falling asleep; the sleep apnea machine helps her sleep more at night and her daytime somnolence has improved, but she still dozes off and falls asleep multiple times during the day; her doctor increased her dosage for the sleep apnea machine; she tried exercising by walking but her legs swell up from walking; and she can walk about one block. (R. at 46, 48, 49, 54, 55, 56, 59, 60, 64, 69, 71, 74). The ALJ found Plaintiff's statements about her symptoms to be “not entirely credible”, explaining:

While the claimant has received medical attention for the conditions alleged, the objective evidence does not support the degree of debilitation alleged. Despite her reports otherwise at the hearing, the treatment records show generally good control of her various chronic conditions (asthma, diabetes, and hypertension) with fairly routine mediations during periods of compliance, with no evidence of need for frequent emergency medical treatment, recurrent hospitalizations, or end-organ damage. The claimant herself has acknowledged improvement in daytime somnolence with use of a CPAP machine, although the record also indicates non-compliance led her to being without that therapy for almost a year. While the claimant maintained at the hearing she has little functional ability, her statements in the record and to examining and treating medical professionals ...

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