United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
G. MARTIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Stephanie Hughes (“Hughes”) seeks judicial review
of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Hughes asks
the Court to reverse and remand the ALJ's decision, and
the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision. For
the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is
reversed and this case is remanded to the Social Security
Administration for further proceedings consistent with this
was born on July 4, 1964 and has a history of shortness of
breath, leg and knee pain, and a heart attack in November
2013. Hughes alleges that she became totally disabled on
August 1, 2012 due to coronary artery disease, hypertension,
gastroesophageal reflux disease, and
hyperlipidemia. Hughes has a high school education and
previously worked as a babysitter, bagger, cashier, and
parent facilitator. Hughes' insured status for DIB
purposes expired on September 30, 2014, which means Hughes
had to show she was disabled on or before that date in order
to be eligible for DIB. Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d
308, 311 (7th Cir. 2012) (noting “the
claimant must establish that he was disabled before the
expiration of his insured status . . . to be eligible for
disability insurance benefits.”).
the standard five-step analysis used to evaluate disability,
the ALJ found that Hughes had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since her alleged onset date of August 1,
2012 (step one) and her coronary artery disease, bilateral
knee osteoarthritis, and restless legs syndrome
(“RLS”) were severe impairments (step two). (R.
15). He determined that Hughes' hypertension,
hyperlipidemia, and GERD were non-severe because they did not
cause more than a minimal limitation in functioning. (R. 16).
The ALJ found that that Hughes' coronary artery disease,
bilateral knee osteoarthritis, and RLS did not qualify as a
listed impairment (step three). (R. 20-21). The ALJ concluded
that Hughes retained the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform light work (i.e.,
“lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent
lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds . . .
[and] a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves
sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm
or leg controls.”), see 20 C.F.R. §
404.1567(b); 416.967(b), except that she was limited to work
requiring no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, kneeling,
or crawling; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs,
balancing, stooping, and crouching; no work in concentrated
exposure to extreme cold or extreme heat; and no work around
hazards such as unprotected heights and exposed moving
mechanical parts. (R. 21).
this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Hughes was able to perform
her past relevant work as a child monitor as actually
performed. (R. 23). As an alternate finding, at step five,
the ALJ found that Hughes could perform other jobs that
existed in significant numbers in the national economy, such
as marker jobs, information clerk jobs, and ticket seller
jobs. (R. 24). The Appeals Council denied Hughes' request
for review on May 26, 2017. (R. 1-6). Hughes now seeks
judicial review of the final administrative decision of the
Commissioner, which is the ALJ's decision.
O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618
(7th Cir. 2010).
the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if he has an
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant
is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act,
the ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry: (1) whether the
claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant
has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's
impairment meets or equals any of the listing found in the
regulations, see 20 C.F.R.' 404, Subpt. P, App.
1 (2004); (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his
former occupation; and (5) whether the claimant is unable to
perform any other available work in light of his age,
education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R.' 404.1520(a),
416.920(a) (2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863,
868 (7th Cir. 2000). These steps are to be
performed sequentially. 20 C.F.R.' 404.1520(a) (2012).
“An affirmative answer leads either to the next step,
or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is
disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3,
ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant
is not disabled.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868
(quoting Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2
(7th Cir. 1985)).
review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining
whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial
evidence or based upon a legal error. Stevenson v.
Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997).
Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Ricardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971). A reviewing court may not substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts,
reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or
deciding questions of credibility. Estok v. Apfel,
152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Finally, an
ALJ's credibility determination should be upheld
“unless it is patently wrong.” Schaaf v.
Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 875 (7th Cir. 2010).
denied Hughes' claim at step four and alternatively, at
step five of the sequential evaluation process, finding that
Hughes retains the residual functional capacity to perform
her past relevant work as a child monitor as actually
performed and a significant number of unskilled light jobs in
the national economy. Hughes challenges the ALJ's
decision on four grounds: (1) the ALJ erroneously failed to
evaluate Hughes' obesity in combination with her other
impairments; (2) the ALJ failed to adequately evaluate
Hughes' bilateral osteoarthritis of the knees; (3) the
ALJ failed to properly evaluate Hughes' RLS; and (4)
substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's step-four
decision that Hughes can perform her past relevant work as a
child monitor as actually performed. The Court finds that the
ALJ erred in determining Hughes' RFC by failing to
evaluate Hughes' obesity and improperly evaluating her
bilateral osteoarthritis of the knees and RLS. Because the
ALJ will reevaluate Hughes' RFC on remand, the Court need
not address whether the ALJ also erred at steps four and five
as those determinations are dependent upon the flawed RFC
The ALJ's Failure to Consider Hughes'
contends that the ALJ failed to adequately evaluate her
obesity including the aggravating impact that her obesity has
on her bilateral knee osteoarthritis and RLS when formulating
the RFC. Hughes suggests that her obesity aggravates the
symptoms of her bilateral knee osteoarthritis and RLS and
limits her ability to stand and/or walk. The Court agrees
that the ALJ failed to specifically address Hughes'
obesity and offered no analysis of the exacerbating effect of
her obesity on her underlying conditions. The ALJ's
failure to consider Hughes' obesity along with her other
impairments was not harmless error.
to SSR 02-1p, an ALJ should consider the effects of obesity
together with the underlying impairments, even if the
individual does not claim obesity as an impairment.”
Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 736
(7th Cir. 2006); see also Arnett v.
Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 593 (7th Cir. 2012)
(stating “[a]n ALJ must factor in obesity when
determining the aggregate impact of [a claimant's]
impairments.”). That is so because “[t]he
combined effects of obesity with other impairments can be
greater than the effects of each of the impairments
considered separately.” SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 34686281, at
*1 (Sept. 12, 2002).
record demonstrates that Hughes was obese during some of the
applicable period. On March 3, 2014, Hughes' Body Mass.
Index (BMI) was 30.81. (R. 448). A BMI of 30.0 or above is
classified as obese. SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 34686281, at *2
(Sept. 12, 2002). Hughes is 5'1” tall and her
weight during the March 19, 2014 consultative examination
with Dr. Velis was 165 pounds, meaning her BMI was
31.2. (R. 19, 433). On November 16, 2015, Hughes
had a BMI of 31.366. (R. 800). Her BMI increased to 32.783 on
February 1, 2016. (R. 820). When Hughes saw Dr. Goldberg on
May 10, 2016, her BMI was 33.444. (R. 842).
argues that the ALJ failed to address how her obesity
affected her knee pain and her ability to stand and/or walk
six hours in an eight-hour workday. Hughes' argument has
merit. “[U]nder S.S.R. 02-1p the ALJ must specifically
address the effect of obesity on a claimant's
limitations.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558,
562 (7th Cir. 2009). The ALJ barely acknowledged
Hughes' weight in his decision. Apart from a reference to
Hughes' testimony regarding her height and weight and one
incorrect reference to Hughes being “overweight”
with a BMI of 33.46, the ALJ did not discuss Hughes'
weight. (R. 19, 22). The ALJ did not mention the words
“obese” or “obesity” in his decision.
Accordingly, the ALJ erred by failing to specifically address
the effect of Hughes' obesity when formulating the RFC.
See Goins v. Colvin, 764 F.3d 677, 681
(7th Cir. 2014) (finding “[t]he [ALJ] gave
meager attention to the plaintiff's obesity . . . . We
keep telling . . . [ALJs] that they have to consider an
applicant's medical problems in combination.”).
Commissioner does not dispute that Hughes was obese during
the relevant time period and that the ALJ did not recognize
that Hughes was obese. The Commissioner appears to suggest
that the ALJ implicitly factored Hughes' obesity into the
decision as part of the state agency physicians'
opinions. (Doc. 19 at 2-3). In some cases, an ALJ's
failure to explicitly discuss the impact of obesity may be
harmless. “[T]his type of error may be harmless when
the RFC is based on limitations identified by doctors who
specifically noted obesity as a contributing factor to the
exacerbation of other impairments.” Pepper v.
Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 364 (7th Cir. 2013);
Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 504
(7th Cir. 2004) (noting that “the ALJ
adopted the limitations suggested by the specialists and