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Carlota R.M. v. Saul

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

July 29, 2019

CARLOTA R.M. Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Sunil R. Harjani, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Carlota R.M.[2] seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Carlota asks the Court to reverse and remand the ALJ's decision, and the Commissioner moves for its affirmance. For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Carlota's claim for disability includes alleged impairments of anxiety, arthritis, severe back pain, depression, diabetes, hypertension, and carpal tunnel syndrome. R. 68. Carlota claims that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her impairment's alleged onset date of June 22, 2013. R. 69.

         Under the Administration's five-step analysis used to evaluate disability, the ALJ found that Carlota had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date (step one) and that she had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, scoliosis, obesity, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and anxiety (step two). R. 17. At step three, the ALJ determined that she did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairment. See 20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.125, and 404.1526. R. 18. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Carlota retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant could frequently climb ramps/stairs and crouch and occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, stoop, or crawl. She can frequently use either upper extremity for fine or gross manipulation. The claimant lacks the ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions because of moderate limitations in concentration, but retains the sustained concentration necessary for simple work of a routine type if given normal workplace breaks, meaning two 15-minute breaks after two hours of work and a 30-inute break mid-shift. The claimant would be unable to maintain assemble line or production pace employment because of moderate limitations in pace, but maintains the ability to perform work permitting a more flexible pace. The claimant should experience no more than occasional changes in the work setting.

R. 21. Given this RFC, the ALJ determined that Carlota was able to perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper and cleaner. R. 25. Thus, the ALJ determined that Carlota was not disabled under 20 CFR 404.1520(f). R. 27.

         On May 11, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Carlota's request for review, leaving the ALJ's March 15, 2017 decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1; See O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2010).


         Under the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry: (1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals any of the listings found in the regulations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (2004); (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his former occupation; and (5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any other available work in light of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). These steps are to be performed sequentially. 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.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (quoting Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985)).

         Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence or based upon a legal error. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). 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). “Although this is a generous standard, it is not entirely uncritical.” Steele, 290 F.3d at 940. Where the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Id. In its substantial evidence review, the Court considers the entire administrative record but does not “reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 869. Finally, an ALJ's evaluation of a claimant's subjective symptoms will be upheld unless it is “patently wrong.” McHenry v. Berryhill, 911 F.3d 866, 873 (7th Cir. 2018).

         The ALJ denied Carlota's claim at step four of the sequential evaluation process, finding that she retains the RFC to perform her past work as a housekeeper and cleaner. Carlota challenges the ALJ's RFC determination on several grounds.

         A. Treating Physician Dr. Didenko

         Carlota's leading argument is that the ALJ erred in discounting treating physician Dr. Taras Didenko's medical opinion down to little weight. The treating-physician rule directs the ALJ to “consider all” of the following factors in weighing “any medical opinion”: (1) the length of treatment; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the supportability of the medical opinion; (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; (5) the physician's degree of specialization; and (6) other factors supporting or contradicting the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) (emphasis added). The checklist factors are designed to help the ALJ “decide how much weight to give to the treating physician's evidence.” Bauer v. Astrue, 532 F.3d 606, 608 (7th Cir. 2008). The treating physician's medical opinion is entitled to “controlling weight” if the opinion is (i) “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and if it is (ii) “not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case.” Id. An ALJ's failure to explicitly apply the checklist can be grounds for remand. See, e.g., Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 860 (7th Cir. 2014) (“in addition to summarizing [the treating physician's] visits and describing their treatment notes, the ALJ should explicitly consider the details of the treatment relationship and provide reasons for the weight given to their opinions”); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299 (7th Cir. 2010) (“the decision does not explicitly address the checklist of factors as applied to the medical opinion evidence.”); Larson v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 744, 751 (7th Cir. 2010) (remanding where the ALJ's decision “said nothing regarding this required checklist of factors.”); Wallace v. Colvin, 193 F.Supp.3d 939, 947 (N.D. Ill. 2016) (“the ALJ did not explicitly apply the checklist. In this Court's view, that failure alone is a ground for a remand.”). Nevertheless, the ...

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