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Melissa G. v. Saul

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

September 13, 2019

MELISSA G., [1] Plaintiff
ANDREW SAUL, [2] Commissioner of Social Security. Defendant .


          Iain D. Johnston, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Melissa G. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking remand of the decision denying her social security benefits. For the reasons below, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is denied, and the case is remanded to the Commissioner for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed for disability benefits on March 26, 2015. She alleged a March 25, 2015 disability onset date caused by back injuries, depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, degenerative arthritis in her lower back, polycystic ovary syndrome, and chronic migraines. R. 17, 68, 166, 193. She stopped working because of her impairments on March 25, 2015. Plaintiff's date last insured is June 30, 2016. R. 82. On November 5, 2015, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, [3] appeared for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). She was then twenty-two years old. At the hearing, she testified about her work history, education, and various impairments, including weakness and pain in her arms, lower back pain, feelings of pins and needles in her arms and legs, depression, mood swings, headaches, and difficulty concentrating. R. 37-48.

         After the hearing, the ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process set forth by the Social Security Administration 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and found that the Plaintiff was not disabled. R.15. The ALJ specifically found the following: (1) at Step One, that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity between her onset date of March 25, 2015, through June 30, 2016, her date last insured, R. 17; (2) at Step Two, that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: obesity, osteophytosis of the thoracic spine, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, radial styloid tenosynovitis of the right thumb, hereditary and idiopathic neuropathy of the lower extremities, and bilateral cubital tunnel syndrome, ” R. 17; (3) at Step Three, that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled any listed impairment, Id.; (4) that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(h) except that she could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, could only occasionally balance, stoop, crawl, kneel crouch, or crawl, no more than frequent bilateral fingering and handling, only occasional exposure to heights and heavy moving machinery, and no commercial driving. R. 19. Plaintiff could understand, remember, and carry out only simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, could not meet hourly quotas, but could meet end of day quotas, and could use her judgment to perform “simple, work-related decisions” with no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors. The ALJ also found Plaintiff unable to perform coordinated tasks with coworkers and limited her to brief and superficial public interaction, Id.; (5) at Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, R. 32; and (6) at Step Five, relying on the vocational expert (“VE”) and considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found Plaintiff could work as a cleaner housekeeper (DOT 323.687-014), cafeteria attendant (DOT 311.677-010), or machine tender (DOT 556.685-038).


         A reviewing court may enter judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner [], with or without remanding the cause for rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner's denial of disability is conclusive when supported by substantial evidence. Id.; Skinner v. Astrue, 487 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). 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, 399-400 (1971). The court may not displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts and evidence, reweighing evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008); Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Similarly, even if reasonable minds could differ on whether a claimant is disabled, a reviewing court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is adequately supported. Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009).

         However, review of an ALJ's decision is not a rubber stamp of approval. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (“mere scintilla” not substantial evidence). The court must critically review the ALJ's decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ's conclusion will not be affirmed where he fails to build a logical bridge between the evidence and his conclusion, even if evidence exists in the record to support that conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008); Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002) (where opinion is “so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review” the case must be remanded). Additionally, courts may not build a logical bridge for the ALJ. Mason v. Colvin, 13 CV 2993, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152938, at *19-20 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 29, 2014).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Psychiatric Treatment

         Plaintiff first argues the ALJ's discussion of her psychiatric treatment was minimal and cherry-picked from the record, thus her decision is not supported by substantial evidence and warrants remand. Dkt. 11 at 4-6. In support, Plaintiff relies on her hearing testimony that she suffered from mood swings, manic episodes, [4] and record evidence showing a history of anger and anger management treatment. R. 43, 920. Plaintiff claims these are “relevant to social functioning subcategory of the B criteria” of the mental health listings, but the ALJ failed to discuss them.[5] Plaintiff also relies on her hearing testimony that she attended college only part time and needed help from friends, her reports to doctors of suicidal thoughts and difficulty concentrating, and her reports of difficulty sleeping, racing thoughts, and depression. R. 38, 398, 882, 884, 896, 904. Plaintiff argues the ALJ ignored all of this evidence of her mental abilities and focused on her normal mental status examinations over abnormal ones, and, therefore, the case should be remanded. See Dkt. 11 at 4-7 (citing Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 580, 859-60 (7th Cir. 2013); Phillips v. Astrue, 413 Fed.Appx. 878, 886 (7th Cir. 2010)).

         This argument fails for three interrelated reasons. First, the ALJ accounted for Plaintiff's psychiatric impairments in her RFC analysis, and Plaintiff does not describe why those restrictions are not sufficient or what additional limitations the ALJ should have found in light of the evidence she identifies. The ALJ limited Plaintiff to only occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, brief and superficial public interaction, forbid tandem and coordinated tasks with others, and limited her to simple and repetitive tasks with no hourly production quotas. R. 18-19. These limitations directly relate to Plaintiff's abilities in concentration, persistence, and pace, coping issues, and ability to work with others, and Plaintiff does not explain why they are insufficient or what additional limitations are necessary. Nor does she argue the failure to address these facts caused error at any specific step of the ALJ's analysis; instead, she argues only generally that a remand is needed to specifically address the evidence she identifies. But by not explaining why this evidence should result in greater functional limitations, Plaintiff has not presented any developed argument warranting remand. See, e.g., Penrod v. Berryhill, 900 F.3d 474, 478 (7th Cir. 2018); Horr v. Berryhill, 743 Fed.Appx. 16, 10 (7th Cir. 2018); Murphy v. Berryhill, 727 Fed.Appx. 202, 207 (7th Cir. 2018).

         Second, Plaintiff's argument does precisely what it accuses the ALJ of doing: Plaintiff points to favorable facts that could support a disability finding while ignoring the unfavorable substantial evidence the ALJ relied on. To begin, it is undisputed that all four medical opinions of record unanimously conclude that Plaintiff is not disabled. See R. 67-80, 82-86. Two of those opinions, from non-examining State agency psychologists Dr. Cremerius and Dr. DiFonso, both opine Plaintiff is mildly restricted in daily living, moderately limited in maintaining social functioning and maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and that Plaintiff had no episodes of decompensation. R. 71, 87. The ALJ explicitly gave great weight to these experts' findings in her opinion. R. 23. The ALJ's mental RFC is almost identical to the RFCs recommended by these two psychologists; indeed, the ALJ's RFC is more restrictive than the psychologists opined was necessary. Compare R. 19 to R. 75-76, 91-93. Plaintiff does not argue these opinions are flawed or outdated, that the ALJ improperly weighed these opinions, or that the ALJ should have sought another medical opinion to re-evaluate her psychiatric issues. Thus, the ALJ was entitled to rely on these opinions. Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 370-71 (7th Cir. 2004) (ALJ entitled to rely on State agency consultative doctor's opinion in part because “there is no doctor's opinion contained in the record which indicated greater limitations than those found by the ALJ.”); see also Frazee v. Berryhill, 733 Fed.Appx. 831, 834 (7th Cir. 2018) (“The ALJ cannot be faulted for not ‘playing doctor' and independently drawing a different [disability] conclusion from [the doctor's] tests.”). The record contains no other medical opinions suggesting claimant is more mentally limited than the ALJ and these experts ultimately concluded, despite Plaintiff being represented by counsel before the ALJ and bearing the burden of proving her disability at the first Four Steps of the evaluation process. Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 527 (7th Cir. 2017) (claimant represented by counsel at the administrative hearing “is presumed to have made her best case before the ALJ”) (citations omitted).

         Additionally, the ALJ did not ignore the psychiatric evidence favorable to Plaintiff. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's reports of suicidal thoughts, but also noted that these depression symptoms had improved with treatment. R. 20, 351. She explained that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder was noted as controlled with medication by June 24, 2016. R. 22, 420. She also explained, for example, how Plaintiff's ability to attend and complete college during the time she claimed disability and relatively normal mental status exams did not fully substantiate her claims of disabling mental impairments. R. 21-23, 369, 371, 398, 902. She discussed the findings of consultative psychologist Dr. Peter Thomas's examination, where Plaintiff reported quick acceleration to anger and severe depression, but presented “with a dramatic style, often elaborating extensively about problems” and “appeared to be inconsistent and her compliance with medical treatment[] and her behavior suggested she had used discussion of suicidal ideation in the past to garner attention.” R. 21, 369-71. The ALJ discussed, albeit briefly, Plaintiff's suicidal and hopeless thoughts and poor coping skills, but mentioned Plaintiff's good relationship with her friends, intact cognition, normal thought content, normal insight, good judgment, intact memory, and otherwise relatively normal mental status examinations. R. 21, 397-98, 892, 900-03. The ALJ's discussion of Plaintiff's mental impairments, coupled with the medical expert reports opining that Plaintiff was not disabled as a result of those impairments, constitutes substantial evidence, and the ALJ was entitled to rely on it. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 399-400.

         Third, the Court agrees with the Commissioner that Plaintiff essentially invites the Court to revisit the mental impairment evidence, ignore the weight the ALJ gave to the substantial evidence she relied on when formulating her opinion, and reweigh the evidence in Plaintiff's favor. The Court declines the invitation, as it is required to do. Overman, 546 F.3d at 462; Elder, 529 F.3d at 413. The ALJ relied on substantial evidence in making her disability determination, minimally addressed the evidence suggesting Plaintiff's disability, and accommodated Plaintiff's mental impairments in her RFC consistent with every medical opinion on record. The Court will not remand solely based on evidence identified by Plaintiff that could theoretically support a finding of psychiatric disability because the ALJ's determination that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ has minimally articulated her reasoning. Simila, 573 F.3d at 513; Rice, 384 F.3d at 371 (ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in her opinion).

         B. Chronic Pain Treatment

         Next, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in her RFC determination when she discounted Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain caused by her fibromyalgia and polyneuropathy. Dkt. 11 at 8. Specifically, she claims the ALJ improperly discredited her allegations of chronic pain. Dkt. 11 at 8-9; Dkt. 20 at 2-3.

         The Court agrees. When evaluating a claimant's subjective symptoms, an ALJ should consider the medications taken, functional limitations, allegations of pain, aggravating factors, objective medical evidence, and daily activities. Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3); SSR 16-3p. Because “the ALJ is in the best position to determine the credibility of a witness, ” courts review an ALJ's credibility determination with deference. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008). A reviewing court will reverse an ALJ's credibility determination if it is so lacking in analysis or support that it is “patently wrong.” Curvin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 645, 651 (7th Cir. 2015); Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). “[O]nce the ALJ has found that the Claimant suffers from impairments that could reasonably cause her symptoms, [s]he may not disregard her allegations just because they are not fully supported by the medical evidence.” Tenhove v. Colvin, 927 F.Supp.2d 557, 574 (E.D. Wis. 2013) (citing Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2009); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001)). Finally, “[a]n erroneous credibility finding requires remand unless the claimant's testimony is incredible on its face or the ALJ explains that the decision did not depend on the credibility finding.” Engstrand v. Colvin, 788 F.3d 655, 660 (7th Cir. 2015).

         After summarizing and explaining the medical record, the ALJ analyzed Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain in the following two paragraphs:

As summarized above, the medical evidence of record is not supportive of the claimant's allegations of disabling symptomatology. While the claimant has reported issues with generalized pain all over the body, diagnostic imaging revealed only mild or no objective medical findings. On physical examinations, no issues with ambulation or muscle weakness were noted, either. Furthermore, she has described her pain as “uncomfortable” and not debilitating. In fact, treatment records through April 2015 focused primarily on complaints of headaches, which were treated only with over-the-counter medication, and she herself described them as only mild in nature. She was not referred for pain management and did not visit with an orthopedist. As for her mental health impairments, the claimant did not begin psychotherapy treatment until March 2016, despite repeated referrals in the past, suggesting that her symptoms were not as severe as reported. She has not presented to the emergency room due to exacerbation of symptoms even while not in treatment. The absence of objective medical findings and conservative treatment does not support the claimant's allegations of not being able to function in a competitive work environment.
Furthermore, the claimant's reports through the evidence of record are not consistent. At the hearing, she testified to not being able to clean or do laundry, which is inconsistent with her own Function Report indicating that she does laundry, removing snow, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, and cleaning [sic]. Furthermore, the claimant was able to obtain her associates degree in May 2016, indicating that she was able to complete homework and tests as a student. After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's 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 the reasons explained in this decision.

R. 22-23. The ALJ went on to credit the opinions of the State Agency medical consultants with “the greatest weight.” R. 23.

         Plaintiff attacks two of the ALJ's justifications for discounting her subjective complaints of pain. First, she argues the ALJ found there was “no proof of Plaintiff's pain.” Dkt. 11 at 8. The Court notes that, while the ALJ did observe that “the medical evidence of record is not supportive of claimant's allegations of disabling symptomology” and that imaging to determine the source of Plaintiff's reports of generalized pain revealed “mild or no objective medical findings, ” R. 22, she did not conclude that no proof existed. After all, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including both fibromyalgia and hereditary and idiopathic neuropathy of the lower extremities. R. 17. However, the ALJ's statement that the objective tests revealed “only mild or no objective medical findings, ” without more explanation, is another way of saying that she disregarded Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain only because they are not fully consistent with the objective medical evidence. This is an improper basis for finding Plaintiff not credible because the ALJ already found impairments (fibromyalgia and neuropathy) which could cause the symptoms Plaintiff alleged. Tenhove, 927 F.Supp.2d at 574; Rudder v. Colvin, 11 CV 50286, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103654, at *34-35 (N.D. Ill. July 30, 2014). And the medical records ...

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