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Brenda L. v. Saul

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

August 8, 2019

BRENDA L., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey Cole Magistrate Judge

         Introduction

         Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381a, 1382c, almost nine years ago, in July of 2009. (Administrative Record (R.) 613-15). She claimed that she became disabled as of April 9, 2009 (R. 613), due to rheumatoid arthritis, COPD, and migraines. (R. 691). Her claim bounced around the administrative review process for nearly a decade. Along the way it was denied, repeatedly, at every level: initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge (ALJ), and appeals council. There were two remands from the Appeals Council, and three denials by two different ALJs. It is that final ALJ's decision, from February 17, 2017, 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) on March 1, 2018, and the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c) on April 3, 2018. [Dkt. # 11]. The case was then reassigned to me several months later, on January 10, 2019. [Dkt. #33]. Plaintiff asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         Standards of Review

         We review the ALJ's decision directly, but we play an “extremely limited” role. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         The ALJ's decision should be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, which is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Therefore, “even if ‘reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [an applicant] is disabled, '” we must affirm if the ALJ's decision has adequate support. See also Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306 (7th Cir. 2012); Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513-514 (7th Cir. 2009); Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 842 (7th Cir.2007).

         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). See 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).

         In the Seventh Circuit, the ALJ also has an obligation to build what is referred to as an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and the result to afford the claimant in order to afford 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 must be able to trace the path of the ALJ's reasoning from the evidence to the 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 a “logical bridge.” Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 1996). As the court put it in Sarchet, “we cannot uphold a decision by an administrative agency...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.”[2] Thus, even if the court 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 the government's brief does, it is still not a case of harmless error. The fact that had the administrative law judge considered the entire record, the ALJ might have reached the same result does not prove that the failure to consider the evidence was harmless. The ALJ could well have reached a different result. That, at least, is the theory in this Circuit. Spiva v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 346, 353 (7th Cir. 2010).[3]

         But, the Seventh Circuit has emphasized that this requirement is a “lax” one, Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 415 (7th Cir. 2008); Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th Cir. 2008), and reviewing courts “will not ‘displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations.'” Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7thCir. 2009). Indeed, appellate review of credibility determinations, is quite limited, and reviewing courts should rarely disturb an ALJ's credibility determinations - which are entitled to special deference - unless the credibility finding is unreasonable or unsupported by the record. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 703 (2004). Accord Green v. Saul, Fed. Appx., 2019 WL 3297472, at *3 (7th Cir. 2019); Metzger v. Astrue, 263 Fed.Appx. 529, 533 (7th Cir. 2008).

         Indeed, determinations of credibility are fraught with uncertainty. Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 753-754 (7th Cir. 2004). As all the courts have acknowledged, the ALJ, unlike a reviewing court, had the opportunity to observe the claimant testifying, and, as Justice Jackson rightly observed, “a few minutes observation... in the courtroom is more informing than reams of cold record.” Ashcraft v. State of Tenn., 322 U.S. 143, 171 (1944)(Jackson, J., dissenting). See also Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 703 (7th Cir. 2004);Green, supra (recognizing the special deference owed to those who make initial credibility determinations based on their intimate involvement in the case and exposure to the actual testimony of the witnesses).

         In short, because the reviewing court lacks direct access to the witnesses, lacks the trier's immersion in the case as a whole, and lacks the trier's experience with the type of case under review, appellate review in Social Security cases is limited and carefully defined. See, e.g., Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 753-754 (7th Cir. 2004); Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1178-79 (7th Cir.2001); Shramek v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 809, 811 (7th Cir.2000); Fairman v. Anderson, 188 F.3d 635, 647 (5th Cir.1999).

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on June 19, 1974, and so was 35 at the time she applied for SSI, and 46 at the time of the ALJ's decision. While she alleges she became disabled on April 9, 2019, she also tells us that she quit working for good June 1, 2004, when she was not even 30 years old. (R. 691). Prior to that, she worked just one month in a kitchen preparing food and washing dishes. (R. 701-06); [Dkt. #3, at Page 2/4]. The last time she worked for a full year appears to have been 2001. (R. 638). She receives Medicaid and Link, and is the representative payee for her child and one of her grandchildren for SSI and public assistance from the state. (R. 48-49, 75).[4]

         Following three administrative hearings - at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified along with medical and vocational experts - the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, and obesity. (R. 18). The ALJ embarked on a lengthy summary of the medical evidence and determined 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. (R. 19-26).

         The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff could perform “sedentary work . . . with [these] additional non-exertional limitations”:

- Occasionally lift a maximum of 10 pounds;
- Frequently lift and/or carry less than 10 pounds;
- Walk and/or stand for about 2 hours total out of an 8- hour workday;
- Sit for about 6 hours out of an 8-hour-workday; and
- Push and/or pull to include operation of hand/or foot controls with the bilateral upper and lower extremities as restricted by the limitations on lifting and/or carrying subject to:

         Postural limitations were:

- Never climbing ladders, ropes, or ...

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