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Tracie H. v. Saul

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

July 26, 2019

TRACIE H., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge.

         Tracie H. applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§416(i), 423, 1381a, 1382c, about five years ago. (Administrative Record (R.) 174-86). She claimed that she became disabled as of December 1, 2011, due to pain through the right side of her body from an old automobile accident, PTSD, high blood pressure, memory loss, overweight, and lymphedema. (R. 213). Over the next few years, plaintiff's application was denied at every level of administrative review: initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge (ALJ), and appeals council. It is the ALJ's decision that is before the court for review. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.955; 404.981. Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) on September 9, 2017. [Dkt. #9]. The case was reassigned to me on October 12, 2018 (R. 43), and the parties finished briefing the matter on February 11, 2019. [Dkt. #55]. Plaintiff asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         I.

         Plaintiff is not yet 40 years old, and was just 32 years old when she claimed she could never work again. (R. 209).[2] She has a spotty work history, and from 2002 to 2011 had ten different jobs, holding on to most for no more than a few months. (R. 237). Most recently, she worked in customer service and as a nurse's aid. (R. 26, 237). At 5'6" tall and about 410 pounds, she is massively overweight with a BMI generally over 70. (R. 25).

         Plaintiff has accumulated an 800-page medical record covering treatment for a variety of impairments and maladies. (R. 289-1087). As is often the case, much of it is irrelevant. Indeed, plaintiff cites only about 30 pages of the medical record in support of her motion to overturn the ALJ's decision. [Dkt. # 42]. Accordingly, we shall dispense with a tedious summary and discuss only those doctor visits and medical findings that are pertinent to the issues in this case.

         After an administrative hearing - at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified - the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ found that plaintiff had several severe impairments: “fractures of UE, hypertensive vascular disease, obesity, chronic venous insufficiency, and anxiety disorder and morbid obesity.” (R. 22). The ALJ also noted that plaintiff had a meniscus tear that was not a severe impairment, but said he considered it in combination with plaintiff's other impairments. (R. 22). The ALJ found that none of plaintiff's impairments, singly or in combination, amounted to a condition that met or equaled an impairment assumed to be disabling in the Commissioner's listings, explaining that counsel “did not argue and therefore waived per se theory of disability, at step-3, of the sequential evaluation process.” (R. 23). Nevertheless, the ALJ then summarized plaintiff's testimony and treatment records from Dr, Rivera and considered listings 1.07 and 12.06. (R. 23-24).

         The ALJ set forth a somewhat confusing residual functional capacity finding, determining that plaintiff could perform “sedentary work . . . except [sic] lift up to 10 pounds, sit for up to six hours and stand/walk about 2 hours in 8-hour workday with normal breaks, no climbing ropes, ladders and scaffolds, occasionally climbing ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crawling, crouch, simple, routine repetitive tasks, in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements, involving only simple work related decisions with few if any work place change [sic], only occasional interaction with public, co-workers, and supervisors[.]” (R. 24-25). The ALJ then stated that plaintiff's “subjective complaints are not shown to persist in such an intense fashion per the record.” (R. 25). The ALJ discussed a number of medical records that showed mostly benign findings, including a treating medical source opinion that showed “full capacity with ability to perform activities of daily living, able to walk, stoop, bend, sit, turn, climb, push, pull and travel, no problems noted with fine or gross manipulation, mild limitations with social functioning and no limitations with concentration.” (R. 25). The ALJ then noted that his RFC (residual functional capacity) finding was similar to the findings of the agency physicians who reviewed the medical evidence. (R. 26).

         Next, the ALJ found that the plaintiff was a younger individual under the Commissioner's regulations, had at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English, and had no transferable job skills. (R. 26). Given these vocational factors, plaintiff would be found “not disabled” under the Medical Vocational Guidelines if she had the capacity to perform a full range of sedentary work. (R. 27). As she did not, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert who said that an individual with plaintiff's restrictions could perform sedentary work as a sorter (198, 000 jobs in the national economy) or assembler (230, 000 jobs). (R. 27). As these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act and not entitled to DIB or SSI. (R. 27).

         II.

         If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court on judicial review must uphold that decision even if the court might have decided the case differently in the first instance. See 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, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 836 (7th Cir. 2014). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court reviews the record as a whole, but does not attempt to substitute its judgment for the ALJ's by reweighing the evidence, resolving material conflicts, or reconsidering facts or the credibility of witnesses. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837. “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is entitled to benefits, ” the court must defer to the Commissioner's resolution of that conflict. Schloesser v. Berryhill, 870 F.3d 712, 717 (7th Cir. 2017); Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir.1997).

         But, in the Seventh Circuit, the ALJ also has an obligation to build what has been called a logical bridge between the evidence and the result in order to afford the claimant meaningful judicial review of the administrative findings. Varga v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 809, 813 (7th Cir. 2015); O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir.2010). The reviewing court must be able to trace the path of the ALJ's reasoning from evidence to conclusion. Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 938 (7th Cir. 2015); Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 812 (7th Cir. 2011). Even if the court agrees with the ultimate result, the case must be remanded if the ALJ fails in his or her obligation to build that “logical bridge.” As Judge Posner said in Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 1996), in which the doctrine, as applied in Social Security cases, originated: “we cannot uphold a decision by an administrative agency, any more than we can uphold a decision by a district court, if, while there is enough evidence in the record to support the decision, the reasons given by the trier of fact do not build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result.”

         The phrase “logical bridge, ” seems to have first appeared in Thompson v. Clifford, 408 F.2d 154, 167 (D.C. Cir. 1968), where Judge Spottswood Robinson said in an administrative case not involving Social Security that: “ ‘Administrative determinations must have a basis in law' and their force depends heavily on the validity of the reasoning in the logical bridge between statute and regulation.” Judge Posner then used the phrase “logical bridge” in a Social Security case merely to require Administrative Law Judges in those kinds of cases to articulate the reasons for their decisions. Sarchet, supra. But, Sarchet did not heighten the burden of proof or inform ALJs in Social Security cases of rules that had to be followed or tests that had to be employed. The Seventh Circuit, itself, has called the logical bridge requirement “lax.” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 415 (7th Cir. 2008); Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th Cir.2008).

         III.

         The plaintiff argues that the ALJ's step two and step three determinations were erroneous, that he improperly discredited her complaints of disabling pain, that his residual functional capacity determination was erroneous, and that his step four determination was erroneous. We shall address each of plaintiff's arguments. But ...


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