United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
R. HARJANI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Mary P. seeks reversal or remand of the final
decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security
denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income. Doc.
. The Commissioner filed a response asking the Court to
affirm its decision, Doc. [26, 27], and Plaintiff filed a
reply. Doc. . 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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
ALJ's Weighing of Medical Opinion Evidence
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.
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 ...