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Pale v. Berryhill

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

July 23, 2018

HASIM PALE, Claimant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Respondent.


          Jeffrey T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge.

         Claimant Hasim Pale (“Claimant”) seeks review of the final decision of Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying Claimant's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II 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. 9.] The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment [ECF Nos. 13 and 22] pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c) and 405(g). For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 13] is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion [ECF No. 22] is denied. This matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


         Claimant filed his claim for DIB on October 4, 2013, alleging disability beginning September 3, 2013. (R. 19.) The 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 counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before ALJ Bill Laskaris. (R. 33-66.) The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert (“VE”) James Radke and Claimant's daughter, Amira Pale. (Id.) An interpreter translated the hearing in Bosnian by telephone. (R. 19.)

         On February 29, 2016, the ALJ denied Claimant's claim for DIB, based on a finding that he was not disabled under the Act. (R. 19-28.) The opinion followed the five-step evaluation process required by Social Security Regulations (“SSRs”).[2] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since September 3, 2013, the alleged onset date. (R. 21.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), anxiety disorder, and depression. (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. (Id.) The ALJ then assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] and concluded that Claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations:

Never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, avoid all use or exposure to moving machinery and unprotected heights. The work is limited to simple routine repetitive tasks; performed in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements, involving only simple, work related decisions and with few, if any, workplace changes; only brief and superficial interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.

(R. 23.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. 26.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant can perform, such as dishwasher, janitor, or dining room attendant. (R. 27.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Act. (R. 28.) The Appeals Council declined to review the matter on April 7, 2017, 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).


         A 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).

         Substantial 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Claimant alleges a number of errors. Among other things, Claimant contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions of Claimant's treating physicians and improperly assessed Claimant's subjective allegations and credibility. Although Claimant raises other alleged errors in the ALJ's opinion, it is unnecessary to address them because these issues are dispositive of Claimant's appeal.

         A. The Medical Opinion Evidence

         Claimant first argues that the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the opinions of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Dees, and his treating physician, Dr. Seferovic.[4] [ECF No. 14, at 13-14.] By rule, “in determining whether a claimant is entitled to Social Security disability benefits, special weight is accorded opinions of the claimant's treating physician.” Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 825 (2003). The opinion of a treating source is entitled to controlling weight if the opinion “is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2); accord Bauer v. Astrue, 532 F.3d 606, 608 (7th Cir. 2008). A treating physician typically has a better opportunity to judge a claimant's limitations than a nontreating physician. Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 979 (7th Cir. 1996); Grindle v. Sullivan, 774 F.Supp. 1501, 1507- 08 (N.D. Ill. 1991). “More weight is given to the opinion of treating physicians because of their greater familiarity with the claimant's conditions and circumstances.” Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003). Therefore, an ALJ “must offer ‘good reasons' for discounting a treating physician's ...

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