United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. Bucklo United States District Judge
Denise Taylor (“Taylor”) brought this action
against Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social
Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), for
review of the denial of her applications for disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the
Social Security Act, and supplemental security income
benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social
Security Act. Taylor now moves to reverse the
Commissioner's decision. She claims that the
Commissioner's determination that she is not disabled,
and thus is not entitled to DIB or SSI, was not supported by
substantial evidence and is contrary to the law. For the
following reasons, Taylor's motion is granted in part and
denied in part. This case is remanded to the Social Security
Administration for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
April 15, 2015, Taylor filed her applications for DIB and
SSI. R. 21. In these two applications, Taylor claimed that
she had been disabled since February 14, 2015, around when
she underwent surgery and developed a spinal epidural abcess.
Id. at 21, 71. Taylor's medical records
indicated that she also had neuropathy, a fractured toe,
osteoarthritis of the thumb, an ACL tear, hypertension,
anemia, and depression. Id. at 24. Taylor worked as
an operating room technician for approximately 23 years
before her February 2015 surgery. Id. at 21, 51.
During 2016, she worked part-time in a medical sterile
processing department. Id. at 50-54.
applications were denied on November 4, 2016, and upon
reconsideration on January 29, 2016. R. 21. Taylor thereafter
requested a hearing, which took place on January 26, 2017
before an administrative law judge (the “ALJ”).
Id. She testified at that hearing as did a
vocational expert. Id. The ALJ denied Taylor's
claims on June 22, 2017, finding she was not disabled as
defined in the Social Security Act. Id. at 31.
reaching her decision, the ALJ employed the five-step inquiry
set out in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. That
inquiry requires a determination of “(1) whether the
claimant is currently employed; (2) whether the claimant has
a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's
impairment is one that the Commissioner considers
conclusively disabling; (4) if the claimant does not have a
conclusively disabling impairment, whether he can perform his
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable
of performing any work in the national economy.”
Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012)
(citation omitted). These steps are applied sequentially.
Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673-74 (7th Cir.
2008). The claimant bears the burden of proof on steps one
through four; the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner
for step five. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000
(7th Cir. 2004). To reach a finding that the claimant is
disabled, the ALJ must reach an affirmative answer at step
three or step five. Craft, 539 F.3d at 673-74.
one, the ALJ determined that Taylor had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since February 14, 2015, her
claimed onset date. R. 23. Taylor had some earnings in 2016
but was not then employed as defined in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1571 et seq. and § 416.971 et seq.
two, the ALJ found that Taylor had one severe impairment:
status post spinal cord injury. R. 23-24. Taylor's other
physical impairments were found to be non-severe: neuropathy,
status post fractured toe, joint osteoarthritis, an ACL tear,
hypertension, and anemia. Id. at 24. The ALJ further
determined that Taylor's depression was not severe and
caused no more than minimal limits on Taylor's ability to
perform basic mental work activities. Id.
assessing Taylor's depression at step two, the ALJ
considered four functional areas, also known as the four
“Paragraph B” criteria for mental functioning.
See 20 C.F.R. § Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The
ALJ determined that Taylor had: (1) “no limitations in
understanding, remembering, or applying information”,
(2) “no limitations in interacting with others, ”
(3) “no limitations in concentrating, persisting, or
maintaining pace, ” and (4) “mild limitations in
adapting or managing oneself.” R. 24. The ALJ explained
that these determinations were not themselves an assessment
of Taylor's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform her past work, but that her
assessment at step four would reflect these determinations.
Id. at 25.
supported these functional area determinations with a summary
of Taylor's reported symptoms and relevant medical
opinions. In June 2015, Taylor reported that she finished
things she started to do, followed written instructions well,
followed spoken instructions very well, and read three times
a week. Id. at 24, 267-73. In September 2015, Taylor
reported that she did not finish things she started to do or
follow instructions well, but she also reported external
stressors at that time, including financial issues.
Id. at 24, 283. Taylor “had never been
hospitalized for mental health treatment, never been in
individual therapy, and had never taken psychotropic
medications, ” and, on examination, Taylor “was
alert and oriented to person, place and time.”
Id. Taylor was diagnosed with “major
depression, severe, single episode” on October 22,
2015. Id. at 24, 2363. Taylor's subsequent
psychiatric examinations in April, May, June, and September
2016, “showed mostly a normal mood and affect.”
Id. at 24, 2392, 2519, 2523, 2527.
three, the ALJ determined that Taylor did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that were
conclusively disabling. Id. at 25.
four, the ALJ concluded that Taylor could perform light work:
frequent lifting of up to 10 pounds, maximum lifting of not
more than 20 pounds, and a good deal of walking or standing.
Id. at 25-30 (citing 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b)
and 416.967(b)). To reach this conclusion, the ALJ analyzed
evidence of Taylor's physical abilities and her
depression. The ALJ considered that Taylor reported she used
a walker and cane in 2015 and 2016 and reported using her
cane consistently in 2017. Id. at 26, 28. November
2016 physical therapy progress notes from the Rehabilitation
Institute of Chicago stated that Taylor's ambulation
status was “complete independence, ” Taylor had
met all goals on her release from physical therapy, she
reported she was “80% back to normal, ” and
“her functional gait status revealed 30/30 with no
apparent defects and 5/5 strength in the bilateral lower
extremities.” Id. at 28 (citing R. 2424,
assigned partial weight to the March 30, 2016 opinion of Dr.
Bakhtiar Yamini, Taylor's neurosurgeon, that Taylor could
return to work part-time with limits on the weight she was
lifting. The ALJ listed four reasons for giving Dr.
Yamini's opinions partial weight. Id. at 29.
First, November and December 2015 progress notes
from Taylor's family medicine practitioner, Dr. Andi
Arnautovic, stated that Taylor's “anemia results
were all within normal limits, ” her “peripheral
neuropathy was controlled with Gabapentin, ” and her
left knee pain was doing well. Id. (citing R. 2495,
2515). Second, Dr. Yamini's March 2016 notes
also stated that Taylor was ready to go back to work, she
moved her extremities well, and was significantly improving.
Id. (citing R. 2552). Third, the ALJ noted
Taylor's substantial gainful activity earnings from June
2016 through September 2016. “Id. (citing R.
224-25). Fourth, November 2016 physical therapy
records from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago show
Taylor's ambulation status was “complete
independence.” Id. (citing R. 2424).
assessing Taylor's RFC, the ALJ stated that she gave
“great weight” to the state agency
psychologists' “assessments for no more than mild
limitations in the paragraph B criteria.” Id.
The ALJ noted that these reports' assessment of a severe
mental impairment was not consistent with the reports'
narratives, which listed no more than mild limitations for
Taylor. Id. The ALJ also contrasted these reports
against Taylor's lack of history of psychiatric or mental
health treatment and consistent reports of normal mood from
other medical examiners. Id.
recognized that, in September 2015, Taylor reported her
medications made her drowsy, caused memory loss, and frequent
urination. Id. at 26. The ALJ later noted that
Taylor's October 2015 psychiatric examination showed that
she was alert, could relate recent news events, and perform
simple memory tests. Id. at 28-29. And, in March
2016, Taylor denied having bladder problems. Id. at
five, the ALJ concluded that Taylor can perform her past job
as an operating room technician and that that job was not
precluded by Taylor's RFC. Id. at 30.
requested review of the ALJ's decision. The Appeals
Council denied her request on January 25, 2018. The ALJ's
decision then became the final decision of the Commissioner.
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