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Mary P v. Berryhill

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

June 14, 2019

Mary P., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUNIL R. HARJANI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Mary P.[1] seeks reversal or remand of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income. Doc. [16]. The Commissioner filed a response asking the Court to affirm its decision, Doc. [26, 27], and Plaintiff filed a reply. Doc. [31]. For the reasons set forth below, this Court cannot hold that the Commissioner's decision denying SSI to Plaintiff was based on substantial evidence in the record due to certain prejudicial errors in the administrative decision that, if corrected, might lead to a different result. Accordingly, the decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         Background

         This case's procedural posture is lengthy. Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on December 17, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2007. R. 169. She later amended her onset date to December 17, 2009, the date she filed her application. R. 1173. Plaintiff's application for benefits was denied initially, upon reconsideration, and in a decision dated August 23, 2011 following a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. 22. On September 27, 2012, Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied. R. 1. Then, Plaintiff appealed the administrative decision and a district court reversed and remanded the ALJ's decision in an April 16, 2014 opinion. R. 822-46; Mary P. v. Colvin, No. 12 C 8983, 2014 WL 1612857 (N.D. Ill. 2014). Following that ruling, the Appeals Council remanded the matter to the ALJ. R. 850. On remand, the ALJ again denied Plaintiff's application in a February 27, 2015 decision. R. 677-87. Then, Plaintiff again appealed the ALJ's decision to the district court. R. 1153-54. The district court then granted the defendant's proposed agreed order to reverse with remand for further administrative proceedings. R. 1155. Following the second judicial remand, on April 26, 2016, the Appeals Council administratively remanded the matter for further proceedings before a new ALJ. R. 1164-66. The new ALJ conducted a new hearing, R. 1087-1132, and then issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application on October 12, 2016. R. 1056-70. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council but was denied, R. 1047-52, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the SSA, reviewable by this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled because of morbid obesity, asthma, hypertension, degenerative joint disease of the left knee and the lumbar spine, and other impairments including a thyroid goiter, gout, chest pain, and depression. Plaintiff's past work experience includes childcare and babysitting. R. 1094-96. Plaintiff testified that she stopped babysitting in 2009 because of her back, knees, and immobility. R. 1096.

         Discussion

         The Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, affirming if it is supported by “substantial evidence in the record, ” that is, “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Although generous, this standard “is not entirely uncritical, ” and the case must be remanded if the “decision lacks evidentiary support.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         Under the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The regulations prescribe a five-part sequential test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). Under the regulations, the Commissioner must consider: (i) whether the claimant has performed any substantial gainful activity during the period for which she claims disability; (ii) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (iii) if so, whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals any listed impairment; (iv) if not, whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past relevant work; and (v) if not, whether she is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See id.; see also Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and if that burden is met, the burden shifts at step five to the Commissioner to provide evidence that the claimant can perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 17, 2009, the application date as amended. R. 1059. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: morbid obesity, asthma, hypertension, mild degenerative joint disease of the left knee, mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. R. 1059. The ALJ noted several non-severe impairments that included a thyroid goiter, food allergies, left foot calcaneal spurs, left toe gout versus cellulitis, and depression. Id. The ALJ also noted a non-medically determinable impairment of chest pain. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. R. 1062. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 416.967(a) with certain limitations:

no more than occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of ramps and stairs; never climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds; should never work around extraordinary hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous unguarded moving mechanical parts; should never work in environments with exposure to concentrated pulmonary irritants such as dust, fumes, odors, and gases.

R. 1063. At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has no past relevant work” and that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” R. 1069. The ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform occupations such as assemblers (over 21, 000 jobs), sorters (over 20, 000 jobs), and visual inspectors (over 40, 000 jobs). R. 1069-79. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. R. 1070.

         A. ALJ's Weighing of Medical Opinion Evidence

         In support of reversal and remand, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in weighing medical opinion evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in weighing treating physicians Dr. Chukwudozie Ezeokoli's and Dr. Bonnie Thomas' medical opinion evidence.

         An ALJ must give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight if it “is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] record.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2); see Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011). “If an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the regulations require the ALJ to consider the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of examination, the physician's specialty, the types of tests performed, and the consistency and supportability of the physician's opinion.” Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2009). “An ALJ is required to weigh all medical opinion evidence pursuant to the ‘checklist of factors'” enumerated in section 416.927(c). Bauer v. Astrue, 532 F.3d 606, 608 (7th Cir. 2008). The checklist instructs an ALJ “to consider the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of examination, the physician's specialty, the types of tests performed, and the consistency and supportability of the physician's opinion.” Moss, 555 F.3d at 561 (7th Cir. 2009). An ALJ's failure to explain how she weighed medical opinion evidence by employing the factors mandates remand. See Gerstner v. Berryhill, 879 F.3d 257, 263 (7th Cir. 2018). “[R]ejecting or discounting the opinion ...


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