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Silvia M v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

September 23, 2019

SILVIA M., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Silvia M. filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”) denied her application and Silvia seeks judicial review of this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Compl., ECF No. 1. Before the Court are Silvia’s Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13, the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Affirmance, ECF No. 19, and Magistrate Judge Jonathan Hawley’s Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), ECF No. 21, which recommends denying Silvia’s motion and granting the Commissioner’s. Silvia objects to the R&R. See Objection, ECF No. 23. The Commissioner has responded to Silvia’s objection. See Resp. Objection, ECF No. 25. For the reasons that follow, the Objection is OVERRULED and the R&R is ADOPTED. Silvia’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED and the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Affirmance is GRANTED.

         I. Report and Recommendation

         When a magistrate judge considers a pretrial matter dispositive of a party’s claim or defense, he must enter a recommended disposition. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(1). Parties may object within fourteen days of being served with a copy of the recommended disposition. Id. 72(b)(2). The district judge considers de novo the portions of the recommended disposition that were properly objected to, and may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition, or return it to the magistrate judge for further proceedings. Id. 72(b)(3). If no objection, or only partial objection, is made, the district judge reviews the unobjected portions of the recommendation for clear error only. Johnson v. Zema Sys. Corp., 170 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 1999). The district judge “may reconsider sua sponte any matter determined by a magistrate judge” even if no party objects. Schur v. L.A. Weight Loss Ctrs., Inc., 577 F.3d 752, 760 (7th Cir. 2009).

         The R&R sets forth the relevant procedural background, including an overview of the administrative law judge’s (“ALJ”) decision, see R&R 1–14, so the Court will not repeat that discussion here. The R&R also sets forth the four arguments Silvia makes in her summary judgment motion:

1) the ALJ erred by failing to build a logical bridge between Silvia’s cane usage, Dr. Eilers’ opinion, Dr. DePhillips’ opinion, and Dr. Shepherd’s opinion to the conclusion Silvia is not disabled; 2) the ALJ committed harmful legal error in the [residual functional capacity] [(“]RFC[”)] assessment; 3) the ALJ committed harmful legal error by failing to apply the Medical Vocational Guidelines (Grid) Rule 201.17; and 4) the A[ppeals] C[ouncil] committed harmful reversible error because it failed to include within the administrative record new and material evidence with a reasonable probability that the evidence would change the outcome of the decision.

Id. at 14. Judge Hawley recommends rejecting all four arguments and affirming the ALJ’s decision. Id. at 27. Silvia objects to Judge Hawley’s analysis of her first three arguments. The Court reviews those issues de novo. The Court has reviewed the remainder of the R&R for clear error and found none.

         II. Analysis

         The court reviews a decision denying benefits to determine only whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). An ALJ commits an error of law if his decision “fails to comply with the Commissioner’s regulations and rulings.” Brown v. Barnhart, 298 F.Supp.2d 773, 779 (E.D. Wis. 2004). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks omitted). The court cannot reweigh the evidence, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment, but must “nonetheless conduct a critical review of the evidence.” Id. “In rendering a decision, an ALJ is not required to provide a complete and written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence, but must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted). The court must “be able to trace the path of the ALJ’s reasoning from evidence to conclusion.” Aranda v. Berryhill, 312 F.Supp. 3d 685, 689 (N.D. Ill. 2018).

         a. Cane Usage

         Silvia argues that “[t]he ALJ played doctor in concluding the medical evidence does not support her need for a cane despite her presenting to appointments using the cane.” Objection 3. “ALJs must not succumb to the temptation to play doctor and make their own independent medical findings.” Rohan v. Chater, 98 F.3d 966, 970 (7th Cir. 1996). “Typical cases of ALJs impermissibly playing doctor are when they either reject a doctor’s medical conclusion without other evidence or when they draw medical conclusions themselves about a claimant without relying on medical evidence.” Back v. Barnhart, 63 Fed.Appx. 254, 259 (7th Cir. 2003) (quotation marks and citation omitted); Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1177 (7th Cir. 2001) (“The cases in which we have reversed because an ALJ impermissibly ‘played doctor’ are ones in which the ALJ failed to address relevant evidence.”).

         The “playing doctor” principle does not apply here. No. doctor prescribed a cane to Silvia or recommended that she use one, so the ALJ did not reject a medical conclusion. Cf. Czarnecki v. Colvin, 595 Fed.Appx. 635, 644–45 (7th Cir. 2015) (“[O]ne of [the plaintiff’s] physicians, after more than a year of treating her, had prescribed a cane, and the ALJ impermissibly ‘played doctor’ by substituting her own opinion that a cane really wasn’t necessary.”). The ALJ noted Silvia’s testimony that she needed to use a cane, R. 33, [2] and that she sometimes presented to doctor’s appointments with a cane, R. 29. But she found that the record did not support ongoing use of the cane. Id. This is supported by substantial evidence. Records document Silvia presenting with a cane only for a brief period of time in 2015. See R. 474 (July 7, 2015); R. 441 (August 10, 2015). And there is medical evidence in the record that conflicts with the necessity to use a cane to walk. See, e.g., R. 396 (Dr. Carlton observing that she could walk more than 50 feet without assistance). The ALJ was “allowed to . . . weigh the evidence and make appropriate inferences from the record.” Seamon v. Astrue, 364 Fed.Appx. 243, 247 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004)). The Court can follow the ALJ’s reasoning and cannot reweigh the evidence to come to a different conclusion.

         b. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Silvia argues that the ALJ erred in assessing the treating physicians’ opinions. Objection 3. Social Security regulations provide that an ALJ will “evaluate every medical opinion [the Social Security Administration] receive[s].” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).[3] “If [th]e [ALJ] find[s] that a treating source’s medical opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of your impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in your case record, [sh]e will give it controlling weight.” Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). If the ALJ does not give the treating source’s opinion controlling weight, she must consider the following factors in determining how much weight to give it: length and extent of the treatment relationship, id. § 404.1527(c)(2)(i)– (ii); how much relevant evidence is presented to support the opinion, id. § 404.1527(c)(3); how consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole, id. § 404.1527(c)(4); whether the source is a specialist in the area of her opinion, id. § 404.1527(c)(5); and any other factor brought to the Social Security Administration’s attention, id. § 404.1527(c)(6). “[T]he ALJ must provide some explanation for her decision to discount a ...

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