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Esther H. v. Saul

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

October 31, 2019

Esther H., Plaintiff,
Andrew Marshall Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Esther H. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking a remand of the decision denying her social security benefits. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and this case is remanded.

         I. Background[1]

         On January 5, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleged a disability beginning on March 15, 2011, because of diabetes, migraines, fibromyalgia, knee pain, back injury, neck pain, tendinitis in the right arm, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and depression. R. 161. Plaintiff reported that she stopped working on her alleged onset date due to her conditions. R. 161.

         On July 27, 2016, Plaintiff, represented by an attorney, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ'). Plaintiff was then 63 years old. Plaintiff testified that she could no longer work because she was always in pain. R. 49. She could stand for only 15 to 20 minutes at a time before she needed to sit down and rest for 15 to 20 minutes. R. 49. Plaintiff could sit for a couple of hours at a time before the pain in her leg would require her to lie down for 20 minutes. R. 49-50.

         Following Plaintiff's back surgery in July 2014, Plaintiff felt better at first but within the year her back issues returned. R. 50-51. Plaintiff testified to memory issues and the need to write things down. R. 56. Plaintiff took medication for depression, which was prescribed by her primary care physician. R. 55. Plaintiff was not seeing a counselor, noting that counseling was expensive. R. 55. Plaintiff also testified that her diabetes was not well controlled even with her medications. R. 57-58.

         As for Plaintiff's work history, she was a dispatcher for 23 years. R. 43. The VE classified this job as skilled work with a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) of 5.[2] R. 60. Plaintiff testified that she left that job because she was eligible to retire and noticed her cognitive skills starting to decline. R. 43, 46. Plaintiff explained that it was nothing “life threatening, but to me, you can't have any kind of errors. You're responsible for lives.” R. 46. Plaintiff was never disciplined for any errors. R. 47.

         For the next four years, Plaintiff worked as a medical assistant. R. 41. Although the VE classified this job as skilled work with an SVP of 6, Plaintiff was not concerned about her cognitive decline because the doctor was in the room with her while she worked. R. 47, 60. In 2011, Plaintiff stopped working as a medical assistant because she was on her feet most of the day and worked long hours. R. 41.

         The ALJ also heard testimony from Linda Gels, a vocational expert (“VE”). The VE identified Plaintiff's past work as a dispatcher, Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) 379.362-018, as skilled work and sedentary, but light as performed by Plaintiff. R. 60. The VE testified that a person with Plaintiff's RFC would be able to perform the dispatcher job as generally performed, namely sedentary. R. 61-62. However, the VE testified that if Plaintiff were limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, she would not be able to perform work as a dispatcher. R. 63. The VE also testified that there was no tolerance for errors that would put a person or situation in jeopardy. R. 64.

         The ALJ ultimately denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, hypertension, degenerative disc disease, left knee osteoarthritis, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. R. 17. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. R. 20. The ALJ concluded that through March 31, 2015, the date last insured, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with certain restrictions. R. 21. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a dispatcher as generally performed. R. 27.

         II. Standard of Review

         A reviewing court may enter judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive. Id. Substantial evidence consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). Accordingly, the reviewing court is not to “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Burmester v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 507, 510 (7th Cir. 2019).

         However, the Seventh Circuit has emphasized that review is not merely a rubber stamp. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (a “mere scintilla” is not substantial evidence). A reviewing court must conduct a critical review of the evidence before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). Even when adequate record evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision will not be affirmed if the Commissioner does not build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). Moreover, federal courts cannot build a logical bridge on behalf of the ALJ. See Mason v. Colvin, No. 13 C 2993, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152938, at *19-20 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 29, 2014).

         III. ...

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