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Michael C. v. Saul

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

October 2, 2019

MICHAEL C, [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”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(I), 423, 1381a, 1382c, about four years ago. (Administrative Record (R.) 146-153). He claimed that he became disabled as of January 30, 2009 (R. 146), due to a back injury, arthritis, and diabetes. (R. 182). 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), and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) on November 27, 2018. [7]. The case was then reassigned to me a couple of months later on January 10, 2019. [Dkt. #14]. Plaintiff asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.

         I.

         Plaintiff was born on December 17, 1962, and was 47 at the time he claims he became unable to work, and 51 at the time his insured status expired. (R. 15, 146). He has a solid work record, working consistently his entire adult life (R. 155-56), most recently as a delivery truck driver and a school bus driver. (R. 183). The delivery job was heavy work, involving delivering crates of gallons of milk weighing over one hundred pounds. (R. 42, 53). The school bus driver job was light work. (R. 53). He had leave the delivery job when he hurt his back due to all the heavy lifting. (R.45). Plaintiff can no longer stand for very long; at the most an hour and a half at a time, but often no more than fifteen minutes. (R. 50). He can't do a lot of walking. (R. 50-51). Plaintiff is 5' 11" and weighs over 300 pounds. (R. 50).

         The medical record covering plaintiff's treatment in this case isn't terribly large at about 275 pages (R. 252-528), and the parties indicate that no more than a couple dozen pages are pertinent to this case [Dkt. # 21, at 4-8], so a brief summary will suffice. The record shows that, at the time plaintiff quit working, he was suffering from disc bulges at multiple locations in his lumbar spine, spondylolisthesis, and degenerative arthritis. (R. 303). Over time, he developed muscle spasms and his back impairment began to interfere with his ability to walk to the extent that his doctor certified a disability placard for his car. (R. 289, 311). He had pain radiating down his legs and then developed osteoarthritic knee pain. (R. 483-503). MRIs showed mild chondromalacia, tendinosis, and edema. (R. 377-78). Obviously, his weight exacerbated his problems. (R. 482). Most recently, he developed nerve impingement and mild arthritis in his right shoulder. (R. 367, 375). Along the way, plaintiff was treated for the pain from all these issues with multiple prescription narcotics (R. 287, 314, 414, 417, 419, 474, 476, 492, 518), and one injection after another. (R. 367, 375, 382, 387, 392, 402, 455, 460, 475, 477).

         After an administrative hearing - at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified - the ALJ determined he was not disabled. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, spondylolisthesis, and sciatica. (R. 15). The ALJ then found 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, referring specifically to Listing 1.04 covering disorders of the spine. (R. 16).

         The ALJ then determined that plaintiff could perform light work light work - which requires lifting/carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, standing/walking about six of eight hours, sitting about six of eight hours - and could frequently climb stairs and ramps, and occasionally climb ropes and ladders. (R. 16). The ALJ then summarized the medical record (R. 17-21), first saying that she found plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not [she said] entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for reasons explained in this decision.” (R. 17). Specifically, the ALJ cited plaintiff's daily activities and his conservative treatment as constituting that “other evidence.” (R. 22). The ALJ then addressed the medical opinion evidence. She gave little weight to the limitations found by plaintiff's chiropractor, and little weight to the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician that plaintiff was severely limited in his ability to walk, saying it was conclusory, did not provide a function-by-function analysis, and was on a topic reserved for the Commissioner. (R. 22). The ALJ also discarded the two opinions from the state agency physicians who reviewed the record and determined there was not enough evidence to render a decision one way or the other. (R. 22).

         Next, the ALJ - relying on the testimony of the vocational expert - found that plaintiff was capable of performing his past work as a school bus driver because as he performed it, it was light work. (R. 23). The ALJ also made the alternate finding - again relying on the testimony of the vocational expert - that plaintiff was capable of performing other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy: cashier (DOT #211.462-010, 500, 000 jobs), hotel housekeeper (DOT #323.687-014, 150, 000 jobs), and sales attendant (DOT#299.677-010). (R. 24). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled and was not entitled to DIB or SSI under the Act. (R. 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 what is called an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and the result in order 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.

         With all deference, we think there are some obvious problems with the ALJ's decision and that a remand is required. First, there is the ALJ's assessment of the plaintiff's allegations of the limiting effects of his symptoms. The ALJ rejected the extent of plaintiff's complaints based on the medical evidence, his daily activities, and his course of treatment. In all three facets, the ALJ either ...


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