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Sheila W. v. Saul

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

September 26, 2019

SHEILA W.[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 II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§416(i), 423, over four years ago. (Administrative Record (R.) 158-59). She claimed that she became disabled as of October 22, 2013. (R. 158), due to a host of impairments, including neurofibromatosis, congestive heart failure, degenerative bone disease, asthma, migraines, depression, and PTSD. (R. 176). Over the ensuing four 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) on July 16, 2018, and the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) on September 14, 2018. [Dkt. #7]. The case was then reassigned to me four months later, on January 10, 2019. [Dkt. # 15]. Plaintiff asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner’s decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         I.

         Plaintiff was 51 years old at the time of the ALJ’s decision. (R. 27, 1587. She has an excellent work history, working steadily from 1987 through 2014. (R. 166). For at least the last 15 years, she has worked as a medical billing coordinator. (R. 188). This was skilled, sedentary work, and involved plaintiff supervising and training other employees. (R. 63-65, 243). Toward the end of her time there, she had a breakdown triggered by her autistic daughter’s threats of suicide, and she went on mental health disability leave. The doctor okayed her to go back to work after about two months, but she was only able to make it through one day when she returned. (R. 49-50). She could no longer concentrate or remember things properly, and was plagued by chronic migraines along with light sensitivity. (R. 53-54). Owing to her neurofibromatosis and degenerative bone disease, she is unable to sit for more than two hours at a time or stand for more than 30 minutes. (R. 56-57). Since leaving work, she looks after her daughter and helps out her parents – they all live together. (R. 55).

         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: “depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, asthma, migraines, congestive heart failure, neurofibromatosis type 1, degenerative bone disease.” (R. 16). She also had nonsevere impairments of vertigo and obesity. (R. 16-17). Plaintiff’s psychological impairments caused mild limitations in the areas of understanding, remembering, and applying information and adapting or managing oneself; she had moderate limitations interacting with others and concentrating, persisting and maintaining pace. (R. 18). None of plaintiff’s impairments, singly or in combination, amounted to a condition that met or equaled an impairment assumed to be disabling in the Commissioner’s listings. (R. 18).

         The ALJ then determined that plaintiff could perform “light work . . . except involving: simple routine tasks; no interaction with the public and only occasional interaction with co-workers, but no tandem tasks or team tasks, or tasks where one production step depends upon another; overhead reaching bilaterally limited to frequent; occasional exposure to odors, dust, fumes gases, and other pulmonary irritants.” (R. 18). The ALJ summarized the plaintiff’s allegations and found that her: “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [her] 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. 20). The ALJ said plaintiff’s allegations were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence or course of treatment, which the ALJ felt was routine. (R. 20). She also later said that plaintiff was involved in significant activities of daily living, indicating greater function than she alleged. (R. 24). The ALJ then went on to summarize the medical evidence. (R. 21-23).

         The ALJ gave great weight to the opinions from the state agency psychologists who reviewed the medical record, finding they were consistent with the medical record as a whole. (R. 24). She accorded little weight to the reviewing doctors in regard to plaintiff’s physical limitations because they felt plaintiff had no severe impairments, and the ALJ disagreed. (R. 24). The ALJ gave little weight to the assessments of plaintiff’s treating psychologist that plaintiff was essentially unable to work, because it was based on plaintiff’s subjective reports and contrary to the records of mental status exams and routine treatment. (R. 24). Finally, the ALJ gave partial weigh to the consulting physician who examined plaintiff in connection with her application for benefits. (R. 25). She found the doctor’s report not particularly useful as it failed to address plaintiff’s limitations in terms of functional capacity. (R. 25).

         Next, the ALJ, relying on the testimony of the vocational expert, found that plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant light and sedentary work, although she did not explain why that was. (R. 25). The ALJ further relied on the testimony of the vocational expert who said that an individual with plaintiff’s restrictions could perform work as “assembler production” (DOT #706.687-010; 180, 000 jobs nationally); packing line worker (DOT #753.687-038; 400, 000 jobs); and “folder garment” (DOT #789.687-066; 3000 jobs). (R. 26). As these jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and was not entitled to benefits under the Act. (R. 26-27).

         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 the government's brief does, it is a case of harmless error. But the fact that the administrative law judge, had she considered the entire record, might have reached the same result does not prove that her failure to consider the evidence was harmless. Had she considered it carefully, she might well have reached a different conclusion.”).

         III.

         A.

         First and foremost, this is another in a long line of what can be called CPP cases – “concentration, persistence, and pace.” As noted above, the ALJ determined that plaintiff suffered a moderate limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. (R. 18). But the ALJ did not mention this in her residual functional capacity determination, or in her hypothetical to the vocational expert, opting instead to limit plaintiff to “simple, routine tasks.” (R. 18, 65). The question is whether “simple, routine tasks” accounts for a moderate limitation in CPP. The answer from the Seventh Circuit, time and time again, has been no. See Mischler v. Berryhill, – Fed.App’x –, –, 2019 WL 1299948, at *5 (7th Cir. 2019)(“. . . ‘simple routine and repetitive tasks’ in a low stress job . . . fails to account for the ‘moderate’ difficulties in concentration, persistence, and pace . . . .”); DeCamp v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 671, 676 (7th Cir. 2019)(“. . . we have “repeatedly rejected the notion that a hypothetical ... confining the claimant to simple, routine tasks and limited interactions with others adequately captures temperamental deficiencies and limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace.”); Win ...


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