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Charita W. v. Berryhill

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

June 18, 2019

CHARITA W., [1] Claimant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.


          Jeffrey T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge.

         Claimant Charita W. (''Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and Title XVI 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 final judgment. [ECF No. 6]. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment [ECF Nos. 12 and 26] pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 12] is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion [ECF No. 26] is denied. This matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Amended Memorandum Order and Opinion.[2]


         Claimant filed applications for DIB and SSI on October 10, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 10, 2013. (R. 144.) The applications initially were denied on February 24, 2014 (R. 167) and upon reconsideration on October 29, 2014 (177-84), after which Claimant requested an administrative hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALP'). (R. 185.) On May 26, 2016, Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Luke Woltering. (R. 144.) Claimant also appeared and testified at a supplemental hearing on October 4, 2016. (Id.) The ALJ heard testimony at the supplemental hearing from impartial medical expert ("ME") Dr. Hugh Savage and vocational expert ("VE") Cheryl R. Hoiseth. (Id.)

         On January 12, 2017, the ALJ granted Claimant's applications for DIB and SSI finding Claimant was disabled as of August 11, 2016, but not prior to that date. (R. 144-60.) The opinion followed the five-step evaluation process required by the Social Security Regulations ("SSRs").[3]20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since Claimant's alleged onset date of June 10, 2013. (R. 146.) The ALJ noted that there was evidence Claimant had engaged in some work activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 147.) At step two, the ALJ found Claimant had the severe impairments of hypertension, cardiovascular accident, syncope, neuropathy in feet, left shoulder separation, reduced hearing in the left ear, depression, and personality disorder. (Id.) The ALJ also found Claimant had the non- severe impairment of a broken toe on the right foot. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that since the alleged disability onset date of June 10, 2013, Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.920(d)). (Id.) The ALJ then assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC")[4] and concluded:

Claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except: The Claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can never crawl or kneel. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can frequently balance, stoop, and crouch. She can frequently reach overhead, handle, finger, feel, push, and pull with the bilateral upper extremities. She can operate foot controls frequently with the right lower extremity and occasionally with the left lower extremity. The Claimant can work in no more than moderate noise environments. She can never work around hazards, such as unprotected heights and exposed moving mechanical parts. She can understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. The Claimant needs to work in a low pressure and low stress work environment defined as one requiring only occasional and simple, work-related decision-making, adjustment to no more than occasional changes in a routine work setting. The Claimant can never work at a production rate pace, such as assembly line work.

(R. 150.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Claimant could not perform any past relevant work. (R. 157.)

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ found, prior to August 11, 2016 - which is the date Claimant's age category changed from being "a younger individual age 45-49" to "an individual closely approaching advanced age" - there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant could perform. (R. 158.) Specifically, the ALJ found Claimant could work as an information clerk (DOT #237.367-046), an order clerk (DOT #209.567-014), and a document preparer (DOT #209.587-018). (R. 159.) The ALJ then found that beginning on August 11, 2016, based on Claimant's changed age category, education, work experience, and RFC, there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy Claimant could perform. (Id.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found Claimant was not disabled prior to August 11, 2016, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled. (R. 159.) The Appeals Council declined to review the matter on January 11, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and therefore, reviewable by this Court under 442 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. Aslrue, 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 asserts that the ALJ made three errors. First, Claimant contends the ALJ improperly assessed Claimant's RFC. Second, Claimant argues the ALJ erroneously disregarded evidence of Claimant's mental health condition. Third, Claimant asserts the ALJ's finding that Claimant could perform other work was not supported by substantial evidence.

         A. Medical Opinion Evidence

         The Court first addresses Claimant's argument that the ALJ erred in giving great weight to Dr. Savage's medical opinion as a non-examining physician who did not review the entirety of Claimant's medical records. [ECF No. 13], at 11. Courts in this Circuit repeatedly have criticized an ALJ's decision to give great weight to a non-examining physician who bases his decision on a fraction of a claimant's medical records. See Meuser v. Colvin,838 F.3d 905, 912 (7th Cir. 2016) (remanding case where doctor did not examine patient and had "only reviewed a fraction of [Claimant's] treatment records that were available before [Claimant] submitted additional evidence"); Goins v. Colvin,764 F.3d 677, 680 (7th Cir. ...

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