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Desiree B. v. Saul

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

November 19, 2019

DESIREE B., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAU, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1]Defendant.



         Plaintiff Desiree B.[2] appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her disability benefits. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment.[3] As detailed below, Plaintiffs motion for summary judgment [dkt. 17] is GRANTED and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [dkt. 22] is DENIED.

         I. Background

         a. Procedural History

         Plaintiff was born in 1968 and was 44 years old on her alleged disability onset date. [R. 38.] Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits on June 25, 2013, alleging disability onset on the same day. [R. 128, 146.] On August 14, 2017, after two administrative hearings, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Luke Woltering issued an unfavorable decision. [R 15-39.] Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review, which was denied on October 10, 2018. [R. 1-7.] Thus, the Decision of the Appeals Council is the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed the instant action on December 11, 2018, seeking review of the Commissioner's most recent decision. [Dkt. 1.]

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         On August 14, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits. [R. 15-39.] At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of June 25, 2013. [R. 17-18.] At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of cervical degenerative disc disease; lumbar degenerative disc disease; right knee arthritis and meniscus tear; seizure disorder; affective disorder; asthma; sleep apnea; limited visual acuity and visual fields, including optic neuritis; multiple sclerosis (“MS”); and obesity. [R. 18.] The ALJ determined that Plaintiffs irritable bowel syndrome; obstructive sleep apnea; mild subchondral sclerosis of the left hip; and migraine headaches were nonsevere impairments. [R. 18-19.] At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. [R. 19-23.]

         Before Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: she cannot kneel or crawl, climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop and crouch; she cannot work around hazard such as unprotected heights and exposed moving mechanical parts; she cannot perform jobs requiring far acuity or field of vision; she cannot tolerate concentrated exposure to extreme cold or extreme heat, humidity, dust, fumes, odors, or other pulmonary irritants; she needs a cane for walking and standing; she can carry out simple instructions and make simple work related decisions; she can adapt to simple routine changes and pressures in the work environment; and she can interact occasionally and superficially with coworkers and supervisors, but is to have no public interaction. [R. 23, 37.]

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work as a social services aide or home health aide. [R. 37.] At Step Five, however, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. [R. 38.] Because of these determinations, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. [R. 39.]

         II. Social Security Regulations and Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act requires all applicants to prove they are disabled as of their date last insured to be eligible for disability insurance benefits. ALJs are required to follow a sequential five-step test to assess whether a claimant is legally disabled. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; and (3) whether the severe impairment (or, in this case, the combination of impairments) meets or equals one considered conclusively disabling such that the claimant is impeded from performing basic work-related activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). While a “not severe” impairment standing alone may not significantly limit an individual's ability to do basic work activities, it may-when considered with limitations or restrictions due to other impairments-be critical to the outcome of a claim. S.S.R. 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, *5 (July 2, 1996). If the impairments) does meet or equal this standard, the inquiry is over and the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R § 416.920(a)(4). If not, the evaluation continues and the ALJ must determine (4) whether the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work. Cannon v. Harris, 651 F.2d 513, 517 (7th Cir. 1981). If not, the ALJ must (5) consider the claimant's age, education, and prior work experience and evaluate whether she is able to engage in another type of work existing in a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Id. At the fourth and fifth steps of the inquiry, the ALJ is required to evaluate the claimant's RFC in calculating which work-related activities she is capable of performing given his limitations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). In the final step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are jobs that the claimant is able to perform, in which case a finding of not disabled is due. Smith v. Schweiker, 735 F.2d 267, 270 (7th Cir. 1984).

         In disability insurance benefits cases, a court's scope of review is limited to deciding whether the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is based upon substantial evidence and the proper legal criteria. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence exists when a “reasonable mind might accept [the evidence] as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). While reviewing a commissioner's decision, the Court may not “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Young, 362 F.3d at 1001. Although the Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the ALJ must nevertheless “build an accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and his conclusion. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 941 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal citation omitted). The Court cannot let the Commissioner's decision stand if the decision lacks sufficient evidentiary support, an adequate discussion of the issues, or is undermined by legal error. Lopez ex rel Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003); see also, 42 U.S.C.§ 405(g).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ's RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence, arguing significant gaps in the requisite logical bridge between the ALJ's analysis of the evidence and his conclusions. We agree, and find the ALJ's opinion impermissibly internally contradictory with respect to ...

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