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Constance S. v. Saul

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

August 8, 2019

CONSTANCE S., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, about five years ago. (Administrative Record (R.) 165-67). She claimed that she became disabled as of August 1, 2013 (R. 165, 191), due to a lower back impairment, diabetes with neuropathy, hypertension, and poor vision. (R. 194). Over the ensuing three 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 February 6, 2018. [Dkt. #7]. The case was reassigned to me about a year later on January 10, 2019. [Dkt. #22]. Plaintiff asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         I.

         Plaintiff was born on February 10, 1955, and was 58 at the time she claims he became unable to work, and 61 at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 25, 165, 191). She has an excellent work record, working as a cashier in large grocery stores consistently for 25 years before her alleged onset date. (R. 203, 173-79). The job entailed being on one's feet all day, as well as lifting up to 20 pounds and frequently lifting 10 pounds. (R. 204-06). When she could no longer do the work, due to her back pain - even with some accommodation from her employer (R. 39-40), she quit and took a small early pension of about $600 a month. (R. 49).

         The medical record covering plaintiff's treatment in this case is of average length, nearly over 400 pages. (R. 293-670). As is generally the case, much of it is of little utility in a disability benefits proceeding. The plaintiff cites to fewer than 20 of those pages to support her claim for benefits. [Dkt. #13, at 2-5]. The Commissioner refers to about a dozen to bolster the ALJ's opinion. [Dkt. # 19]. So, a lengthy recounting of the evidence will not be necessary. Suffice it to say that an MRI in July 2015 revealed moderate disc bulging and stenosis at L4-5, and mild disc bulging and stenosis at L3-4 and L5-S1. (R. 594). Positive straight raising shows that this comes with radiculopathy. (R. 477). Clinical tests show that plaintiff has decreased sensation in her hands and feet due to diabetic neuropathy. (R. 364, 369, 370, 477). A psychologist who examined the plaintiff at the Agency's request found she suffered from a panic disorder and a “major depressive disorder, mild.” (R. 483). The psychologist who reviewed the medical record for the agency found that plaintiff had a severe mental impairment. (R. 83).

         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 a number of severe impairments: “obesity, diabetes mellitus, peripheral neuropathy, hypertension and degenerative disc disease.” (R. 18). The ALJ said the plaintiff's anxiety and/or depression were not severe impairments, dismissing the findings of the Agency's consultative examiner and the reviewing psychologist. (R. 19). The ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment assumed to be disabling in the Commissioner's listings, referring specifically to Listing 11.14 for peripheral neuropathy and 1.04 for disorders of the spine. (R. 19-20).

         The ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform light work - lifting up to 20 pounds with frequent lifting of up to 10 pounds and unlimited standing and walking - with the following limitations:

no more than occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and no more than occasional stooping, crouching, or crawling. Claimant is limited from jobs that require fine distance perception . . . Claimant is not able to tolerate vibrating hand tools and not to have concentrated exposure to work place hazards (such as operating machinery, working at unprotected heights, or having concentrated exposure to unguarded hazardous machinery.

         (R. 20). The ALJ then summarized the medical evidence (R. 20-24), finding that diagnoses were mild, examinations were essentially normal, and diagnostic studies were minimal. (R. 20-24).

         The ALJ then found the plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for reasons explained in this decision.” (R. 23). The ALJ then addressed the medical opinion evidence. In regard to Dr. Madappallil's opinions, the ALJ gave them no weight because the doctor said the onset of plaintiff's impairments was June 2007 while plaintiff alleged disability began in 2013, limitations were not consistent with treatment notes, and demonstrated no increase in severity (R. 23), Dr. Madappallil, an internist, did not recommend plaintiff see a specialist other than a pain specialist, and had seen plaintiff only four times since her alleged onset date. (R. 24). Recalling that the ALJ dismissed the findings of both the state agency consultative examiner and reviewing psychologist, the only medical opinion in the record the ALJ accepted was that of the state agency reviewing physician. The ALJ adopted the limitations the doctor found, stating that he was familiar with Social Security disability, reviewed the record, and provided a detailed explanation with references to the record. (R. 24).

         Next, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff was able to perform her past work as a cashier /checker, which was light work requiring a great deal of standing and/or walking, and was semiskilled. (R. 25). The ALJ then found that plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits under the Act. (R. 25).

         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. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir.1997); Schloesser v. Berryhill, 870 F.3d 712, 717 (7th Cir. 2017)

         But, in the Seventh Circuit, the ALJ also has an obligation to build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result 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 court has to 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. Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 1996)(“. . . 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.”); see also Spiva v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 346, 353 (7th Cir. 2010)(“The government seems to think that if it can find enough evidence in the record to establish that the administrative law judge might have reached the same result had she considered all the evidence and evaluated it as ...


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