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David A. v. Berryhill

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

October 21, 2019

DAVID A., Claimant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.


          Jeffrey T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge.

         Claimant David A. ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 8.] The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 15, 20.] This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion [ECF No. 15] is granted in part, and the Commissioner's Motion [ECF No. 20] is denied. The Commissioner's decision is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


         Claimant filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and SSI on August 6, 2014, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009. (R. 15.) Claimant's applications were denied initially on November 18, 2014, and upon reconsideration on March 18, 2015, after which Claimant requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Id.) On May 16, 2017, Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before ALJ Matthew Johnson. (R. 15, 35-37.) The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert ("VE") Lee O. Knutson. (Id.) At the hearing, Claimant, through his attorney, amended his alleged disability onset date to August 6, 2014. (R. 15.) Because this date was after Claimant's date last insured for DIB purposes (March 31, 2009), the amendment effectively withdrew Claimant's DIB claim. (Id.)

         On June 30, 2017, the ALJ denied Claimant's claim for SSI. (R. 12-32.) The opinion followed the five-step evaluation process required by Social Security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since his alleged disability onset date of August 6, 2014. (R. 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equasl the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 17-19.) The ALJ then determined that Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[1] to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant can frequently reach overhead with his right and left upper extremities. The claimant can reach in all other directions on a frequent basis with his right and left upper extremities. The claimant can frequently handle and finger with his left hand and can frequently handle and finger with his right hand. The claimant can occasionally work in hazardous environments such as around unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts and operate a commercial motor vehicle. The claimant can assume no position for longer than forty-five minutes. If the claimant does need to sit, stand or walk for forty-five minutes at one time, he must be allowed to assume a different position for five minutes before resuming the prior position without abandoning his workstation or losing concentration on his assigned work duties. The claimant can understand, carry out, remember and perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks; involving only simple, work-related decisions with the ability to adapt only to routine workplace changes.

(R. 19-20.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Claimant did not have any past relevant work. (R. 25.) Then, at step five, the ALJ determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant can perform, such as assembler and cashier. (R. 25-26.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled. (R. 26.) The Appeals Council declined to review the matter on May 23, 2018 (R. 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by this Court under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).


         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final decision if the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). Judicial review is limited to determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in reaching his or her decision. See Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). The reviewing court may enter a judgment "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 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) (internal quotations omitted). A "mere scintilla" of evidence is not enough. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). Even where there is adequate evidence in the record to support an ALJ's decision, it will not be upheld if the ALJ did not "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusion." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 941 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted). In other words, if the ALJ's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot stand. See Villcmo v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Though the standard of review is deferential, a reviewing court must "conduct a critical review of the evidence" before affirming the ALJ's decision. Eichsiadi v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted). The reviewing court may not, however, "displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         III. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Claimant asserts that: (1) the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of his treating physician and by relying upon the outdated opinion of a non-examining state agency consultant; and (2) the ALJ erred in evaluating Claimant's subjective symptom allegations and by failing to address the third-party report of Claimant's friend, Linda Rizzute. [ECF No. 16] at 1, 10-18.

         A. The Treating Physician's Opinion

         Claimant first contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Larry Najera. [ECF No. 16] at 11-15. An ALJ must give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion if it is both "well-supported" and "not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence" in the case record.[2] 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2); see Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011). Because a treating physician has "greater familiarity with the claimant's condition and circumstances," an ALJ "must offer good reasons for discounting a treating physician's opinion." Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotations omitted); Gudgel v. Barnhari, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003). Those reasons must be "supported by substantial evidence in the record; a contrary opinion of a non-examining source does not, by itself, suffice." Gudgel, 345 F.3d at 470.

         "Even if an ALJ gives good reasons for not giving controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion, she has to decide what weight to give that opinion." Campbell, 627 F.3d at 308. To do this, the ALJ must, by regulation, consider a variety of factors, including: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (3) the extent to which medical evidence supports the opinion; (4) the degree to which the opinion is consistent with the entire record; (5) whether the physician was a specialist in the relevant area; and (6) other factors that validate or contradict the opinion. Scrogham v. Calvin,765 F.3d 685, 697 (7th Cir. 2014); 20 ...

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