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Cheryl G. v. Saul

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

September 17, 2019

CHERYL G., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Sunil R. Harjani United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Cheryl G.[1] seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Cheryl seeks an award of benefits, or in the alternative, a remand to the Commissioner for further proceedings. The Commissioner filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to affirm the ALJ's denial of benefits. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants in part Cheryl's request for a remand, denies the Commissioner's motion [26], reverses the ALJ's decision in part, and remands this case for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         Before she fell in the parking lot at work and injured her left ankle on January 29, 2010, Cheryl had worked as a legal secretary and school bus driver. Since then, she has had six surgeries: two left ankle reconstructions, three left knee surgeries, and one left hip surgery. (R. at 54). In August 2013, at age 55, Cheryl applied for benefits based on a left ankle injury, left knee injury, left hip injury, uncontrolled diabetes, anxiety, and pulmonary embolism, alleging an onset date of January 29, 2010. Id. at 265-76. When she filed for disability benefits, Cheryl was 5'4", weighed 240 pounds, and had a body mass index of over 41.2, which is considered "extreme" obesity. Id. at 298; SSR 02-01p, 2002 WL 34686281, at *2 (Sept. 12, 2002). After Cheryl's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing. Id. at 45-94, 95-154, 157-61, 168-79. Cheryl, represented by counsel, testified, as did her son James and a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. 45-94.

         On February 17, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Cheryl's DIB and SSI claims. (R. 22-39). At the outset, the ALJ determined that Cheryl was last insured as of June 30, 2014. Id. at 22. To be eligible for DIB, a claimant must show that she was disabled as of her date last insured. See Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 311 (7th Cir. 2012). Following the Social Security Administration's five-step analysis for evaluating disability, the ALJ found that Cheryl had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of January 29, 2010 (step one). (R. 24). She next determined that Cheryl suffered from the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis in the knees and back; status-post knee replacement, left; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, cervical spondylosis; cardiovascular issues, arrhythmias; and obesity (step two). Id. at 25. The ALJ found that Cheryl's hypertension, diabetes mellitus, thyroid disorder, vision problems, headaches, gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease, and anxiety were non-severe impairments. Id. at 25-28. Applying the Paragraph B criteria, the ALJ found that Cheryl had mild limitations in understanding, remembering, and applying information, mild limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace, mild limitations in adapting or managing herself, and no limitations in interacting with others. Id. at 26-28. The ALJ also found that none of Cheryl's impairments met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment, including Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), and 4.00 (cardiovascular system) (step three). Id. at 29.

         The ALJ then concluded that Cheryl retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with several additional restrictions. (R. 29-37). Specifically, Cheryl could lift and carry up to ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently; she could sit for up to six hours and stand or walk for up about two hours during the workday; she could push/pull as much as she is able to lift; she could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; she could never operate foot controls with either foot; she had to avoid all exposure to hazards such as work at unprotected heights and moving, mechanical parts; and she could not be exposed to vibration. Id. at 29. Given this RFC, the ALJ determined that Cheryl could perform her past relevant work as a secretary and legal secretary (step four). Id. at 37. Alternatively, the ALJ found at step five that other jobs existed in the national economy that Cheryl could perform, such as school secretary, subscription clerk, and order clerk. Id. at 38. Based on these steps four and five findings, the ALJ found that Chery was not disabled. Id. at 39. The Appeals Council denied Cheryl's request for review on January 18, 2018, leaving the ALJ's February 17, 2017 decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 5-11; Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ conducts a sequential five-step inquiry, asking: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Does the claimant have a severe impairment? (3) Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal an impairment specifically listed in the regulations? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform a former occupation? and (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work in the national economy? Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992); Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(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.” Zalewski, 760 F.2d at 162 n.2.

         Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether it adequately discusses the issues and is based upon substantial evidence and the proper legal criteria. See Villano, 556 F.3d at 562; Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). In reviewing an ALJ's decision, the Court may “not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the” ALJ. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Although the Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the ALJ must nevertheless “build an accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and her conclusions. See Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 938, 941 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal citation and quotations omitted); see also Fisher v. Berryhill, 760 Fed.Appx. 471, 476 (7th Cir. 2019) (explaining that the “substantial evidence” standard requires the building of “a logical and accurate bridge between the evidence and conclusion”). Moreover, when the ALJ's “decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele, 290 F.3d at 940.

         Cheryl raises five main arguments in support of her request for reversal: (1) the ALJ erred in determining that Cheryl did not meet the requirements of Listings 1.02 and 1.03; (2) the ALJ failed to build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and her RFC determination; (3) the ALJ's subjective symptom evaluation is flawed; (4) the ALJ failed to state the weight afforded to Cheryl's son's testimony; and (5) the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinion evidence. The Court agrees with Cheryl's last argument that the ALJ inadequately evaluated the medical opinion evidence. Because that failure alone is a ground for remand, the Court does not reach Cheryl's additional arguments.

         “An ALJ must consider all medical opinions in the record.” Roddy v. Astrue, 705 F.3d 631, 636 (7th Cir. 2013); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c) (“we will evaluate every medical opinion we receive.”). Moreover, “[a] treating physician's medical opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is supported by objective medical evidence and consistent with other substantial evidence in the record.” Id; Gerstner v. Berryhill, 879 F.3d 257, 261 (7th Cir. 2018) (the treating physician rule governs claims filed before March 27, 2017); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). An ALJ is “required to provide a sound explanation” for her decision to reject a treating physician's opinion. Id. “If an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the regulations require the ALJ to consider the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of examination, the physician's specialty, the types of tests performed and the consistency and supportability of the physician's opinion.” Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2008).

         Cheryl argues that the ALJ erred by failing to make any weight determination with respect to her treating surgeons' opinions. Dr. Mukund Komanduri, an orthopedic surgeon, treated Cheryl from March 8, 2010 through May 6, 2015 for left knee and hip issues. He performed four surgeries on Cheryl: (1) 8/24/2010 - left knee arthroscopy; (2) 5/7/2013 - left hip arthroscopy with labral repair and osteoplasty of the acetabulum and femur; (3) 3/25/2014 - left total knee arthroplasty (knee replacement); and (4) 6/19/2014 - surgery to manipulate the left knee. (R. 656-57, 883-86; 1908-09, 1999). Dr. Komanduri was deposed for over two hours on June 27, 2013 in connection with Cheryl's worker's compensation case. Id. at 349-488. During that deposition, Dr. Komanduri testified as follows regarding Cheryl's ability to work:

Q. [W]as it your opinion that petitioner could have performed some form of light duty?
A. I think she could have probably done some kind of sedentary duty if such an occupation existed in a bus ...

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