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Ann F. v. Saul

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

June 27, 2019

ALEITHIA ANN F., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUNIL R. HARJANI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Aleithia F.[2] seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Aleithia's Motion for Summary Judgment [11] is granted, the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment [18] is denied, and the ALJ's decision is reversed, and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Aleithia has a high school education and completed one year of college. (R. 24, 68, 225). Between 2000 and 2008, she held a variety of full-time and part-time jobs, working as a mailroom clerk, a receptionist, a cash accounting clerk, a home healthcare provider, and a teacher's assistant at a day care facility. Id. at 66-68, 226, 293, 295-96. In January 2011, after undergoing a hysterectomy the previous month, Aleithia began working as a medical administrative assistant. Id. at 49-50, 225-26. A few days after she started this job, Aleithia experienced extreme surgery-related pain when she went to retrieve a heavy file. Id. at 50, 225. Aleithia reported that she was then let go because she was not able to perform her duties as a medical administrative assistant. Id. at 50-51, 225. Aleithia has not attempted to work since then. Id. at 51.

         In December 2012, Aleithia filed a DIB application alleging that she became disabled on September 24, 2008 due to fibromyalgia, major and severe depression, anxiety, and asthma. (R. 93, 112, 224). After Aleithia's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, an administrative law judge held a hearing. Id. at 33-77, 93, 111-16, 121-25. Aleithia, represented by counsel, testified, as did a medical expert (“ME”) and a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at 33-35, 38-74. At the hearing, the ALJ accepted Aleithia's request to amend her alleged disability onset date to May 30, 2011. Id. at 13, 35-36, 220.

         On February 9, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Aleithia's DIB claim. (R. 10-32). At the outset, the ALJ determined that the relevant time period was from September 24, 2008, Aleithia's originally alleged onset date, [3] through March 31, 2014, her date last insured. Id. at 13-14, 26. Following the required five-step analysis for evaluating disability, the ALJ found that Aleithia had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of September 24, 2008 through her date last insured of March 31, 2014 (step one). Id. at 15. At step two, the ALJ found that Aleithia's degenerative disc disease of the cervical and thoracic spine, cervicalgia, tendinosis of the distal supraspinatus tendon with small partial thickness tear of the left shoulder, fibromyalgia, torn medial meniscus of the right knee, osteoarthritis, asthma/allergies, obesity, major depressive order, and anxiety disorder were severe impairments (step two). Id. at 15-16. The ALJ determined, however, that none of these impairments met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment (step three). Id. at 17-20.

         The ALJ then concluded that Aleithia retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work[4] as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with additional postural, environmental, and mental limitations. (R. 20). Specifically, the ALJ found that Aleithia could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs; she could never work at unprotected heights; she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and even moderate exposure to vibration; she could not do any commercial driving; she could perform the mental demands of simple routine repetitive work; she could not work with the general public as part of routine job duties; she could only have occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors; and she could not perform fast-paced production line assembly type work, but could perform work of a variable rate. Id. Given this RFC, the ALJ determined that Aleithia was unable to perform her past relevant work as a cash account clerk and mail clerk (step four). Id. at 24. The ALJ also determined that Aleithia could perform other light exertional jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, such as hand packager, assembler, and sorter (step five). Id. at 24-25. The ALJ further noted that the VE identified jobs that Aleithia could perform “[e]ven if the hypothetical situation was amended to sedentary work.”[5] Id. at 25. Based on these step-five findings, the ALJ found that Aleithia was not disabled. Id. at 25-26. The Appeals Council denied Aleithia's request for review on October 27, 2017, leaving the ALJ's February 9, 2016 decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-5; Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

         II. DISCUSSION

         Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if she is unable “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). To determine disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ conducts a sequential five-step inquiry, asking: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Does the claimant have a severe impairment? (3) Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal an impairment specifically listed in the regulations? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform a former occupation? and (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work in the national economy? Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992); Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). “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.” Zalewski, 760 F.2d at 162 n.2.

         Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether it adequately discusses the issues and is based upon substantial evidence and the proper legal criteria. See Villano, 556 F.3d at 562; Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In reviewing an ALJ's decision, the Court may “not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Although the Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the ALJ must nevertheless “build an accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and her conclusions. See Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 938, 941 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal citation and quotations omitted). When the ALJ's “decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele, 290 F.3d at 940.

         The ALJ found Aleithia not disabled at step five of the sequential evaluation process because she retained the RFC to perform other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Aleithia challenges the ALJ's non-disability finding on the basis that the ALJ inadequately and improperly assessed her statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms, specifically with respect to her fibromyalgia.[6] As explained below, the ALJ's subjective symptom assessment related to Aleithia's fibromyalgia is unsupported by substantial evidence.

         To properly evaluate a claimant's symptoms (including pain), the ALJ must follow a two-step process. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *2 (July 2, 1996)[7]; see also SSR 12-2p (“Evaluation of Fibromyalgia”), 2012 WL 3104869, at *5 (July 25, 2012) (directing ALJs to follow the two- step process set forth in SSR 96-7p when evaluating a claimant's statements about her fibromyalgia symptoms and functional limitations). First, the ALJ “must consider whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) . . . that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's pain or other symptoms.” Id. “Second, once an underlying physical or mental impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's pain or other symptoms has been shown, [the ALJ] must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the individual's symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms limit the individual's ability to do basic work activities.” Id.

         The Court gives deference to the ALJ's evaluation of a claimant's subjective symptom allegations and will overturn it only if it is “patently wrong.” Murphy v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 811, 815-16 (7th Cir. 2014). An ALJ must justify her evaluation with “specific reasons supported by the record.” Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 367 (7th Cir. 2013); Groskreutz v. Barnhart, 108 Fed.Appx. 412, 416 (7th Cir. 2004) (courts “will affirm a credibility determination as long as the ALJ's reasons are supported by record, ” but “will reverse when the ALJ's decision ‘is unreliable because of serious mistakes or omissions.'”). In evaluating a claimant's subjective symptom allegations, “an ALJ must consider several factors, including the claimant's daily activities, her level of pain or symptoms, aggravating factors, medication, treatment, and limitations[.]” Villano, 556 F.3d at 562; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c) (June 13, 2011 to Mar. 26, 2017); SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *3. Similarly, at step two of the fibromyalgia symptom evaluation process, SSR 12-2p directs ALJs to “consider all of the evidence in the case record, including the person's daily activities, medications or other treatments the person uses, or has used, to alleviate symptoms; the nature and frequency of the person's attempts to obtain medical treatment for symptoms; and statements by other people about the person's symptoms.” SSR 12-2p, 2012 WL 3104869, at *5. Ultimately, “the ALJ must explain her [subjective symptom evaluation] in such a way that allows [the Court] to determine whether she reached her decision in a rational manner, logically based on her specific findings and the evidence in the record.” Murphy, 759 F.3d at 816 (internal quotations omitted).

         At step two of the five-step process, the ALJ determined that Alethia's fibromyalgia was among her severe impairments. The ALJ noted that Alethia was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in November 2012 and she “experiences generalized tender points bilaterally and diffuse pain.” (R. 16). Alethia testified at the hearing that her fibromyalgia pain is “debilitating” and she “can't even stand for 10 minutes without being in pain.” Id. 53-54. She stated that she experiences fibromyalgia pain throughout her entire body. Id. at 54. Alethia additionally testified that if she is active like “sweeping the kitchen floor” or “trying to wash dishes, ” she “pay[s] for it the very next day.” Id. at 53. Alethia rated her pain level as an 8 or a 9 when she is active. Id. at 54. Alethia indicated that she had been prescribed different ...


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