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Barbara K. K. v. Saul

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

December 3, 2019

BARBARA K. K., [1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Iain D. Johnston, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Barbara K. K. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking remand of the decision denying her social security benefits. For the reasons below, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is granted, and the ALJ's decision is affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed the application for disability benefits subject to this appeal on May 8, 2015.[2] R. 242. She alleged a June 18, 2010 disability onset date caused by Hashimoto thyroiditis, [3] spinal stenosis, arm impairments, fibromyalgia, digestive issues, and vertigo. R. 271. She later amended her alleged onset date to April 28, 2012. R. 17, 96-97. She alleged that she stopped working because of her impairments on June 18, 2010. R. 271. Plaintiff's date last insured is December 31, 2015. R. 19. On July 18, 2017, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, [4] appeared for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). She was then 54 years old. R. 95. At the hearing, she testified about her work history, education, and symptoms, including migraines of varying severity, dizziness, memory issues, chronic fibromyalgia pain, knee and shoulder pain. R. 95-121.

         After the hearing, the ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process set forth by the Social Security Administration in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and found that the Plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ specifically found the following: (1) at Step One, that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of April 28, 2012, R. 20; (2) at Step Two, that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, degenerative disk disease of the cervical spine, migraine headaches, right-sided trigger finger, Hashimoto thyroiditis, and obesity, ” id.; (3) at Step Three, that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled any listed impairment, R. 22-23; (4) that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) except that she could never climb ramps and stairs, could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crawl, crouch and reach overhead with her bilateral upper extremities, could frequently handle and finger with her right upper extremity, must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold, excessive humidity, wetness, vibration, noise, fumes, odors, dusts and gases, and must avoid unprotected heights or machinery with moving parts, R. 24; (5) and at Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a customer service trainer as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.[5] R. 29.


         A reviewing court may enter judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner [], with or without remanding the cause for rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner's denial of disability is conclusive when supported by substantial evidence. Id.; Skinner v. Astrue, 487 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence “means-and means only-'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Court may not displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts and evidence, reweighing evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations. Overman v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008); Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Similarly, even if reasonable minds could differ on whether a claimant is disabled, a reviewing court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is adequately supported. Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009).

         However, review of an ALJ's decision is not a rubber stamp of approval. Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154 (“mere scintilla” not substantial evidence). The court must critically review the ALJ's decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ's conclusion will not be affirmed where he fails to build a logical bridge between the evidence and his conclusion, even if evidence exists in the record to support that conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008); Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002) (where opinion is “so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review” the case must be remanded). Additionally, courts may not build a logical bridge for the ALJ. Mason v. Colvin, 13 CV 2993, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152938, at *19-20 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 29, 2014).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Before engaging in substantive analysis, the Court notes the general and conclusory nature of Plaintiff's briefs. For instance, the opening brief limits its legal arguments to the last four pages, and even that consists of only vague and conclusory arguments, jumping from point to point with little to no development, and, in some instances, unsupported by relevant case or record citations. See Dkt. 14.[6] It is neither the Commissioner's nor this Court's obligation to rebuild such poorly constructed arguments. See, e.g., Martinez v. Colvin, 12 CV 50016, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41754, *24-28 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 28, 2014) (internal citations omitted); see also Olivas v. Berryhill, 17 CV 50197, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 211743, at *12-13 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 17, 2018). Plaintiff's counsel risks forfeiting similar arguments in the future by failing to adequately brief and develop them. Regardless, the Court has attempted to construe Plaintiff's arguments to meaningfully evaluate them where possible.

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by cherry-picking facts that support his finding that Plaintiff is not disabled while ignoring evidence that might support a disability finding. Dkt. 14 at 8 (citing O'Connor-Spinner v. Colvin, 832 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir. 2016)). For instance, Plaintiff claims the ALJ improperly ignored her and her husband's testimony regarding her activities of daily living “on numerous occasions.” Id. Even a cursory glance at the ALJ's decision reveals that this argument is meritless. Along with addressing the relevant functional reports Plaintiff completed throughout her medical treatment history, [7] which the ALJ is permitted to do under the regulations, [8] the ALJ discussed and considered both Plaintiff's and her husband's hearing testimony. R. 25, 28-29 referring to R. 102-24, 295-302, 319-23, 336, 347- 49. The ALJ found Plaintiff's subjective complaints “less than fully consistent with the entirety of the evidence with respect to the severity of symptoms and limitations associated with her impairments.” R. 28. In his credibility analysis, the ALJ gave three main reasons for discounting Plaintiff's subjective complaints: (1) Plaintiff complained of frequent days of disabling symptom levels, yet her doctors regularly reported no unusual fatigue, distress, gait, coordination, or leg strength, and rarely (twice) observed vertigo symptoms throughout her treatment history; (2) Plaintiff regularly reported severe migraines to treaters, yet she never presented with one or with any photophobia evincing the same; and (3) Plaintiff admitted to being able to do various home activities (meal preparation, driving, shopping, chores, teaching a class at her church, dancing, woodworking) that belied “a complete inability to perform sedentary work.”[9] Id. Additionally, instead of ignoring Plaintiff's husband's opinion regarding the severity of Plaintiff's limitations, the ALJ gave his opinion “little weight” and cited the same reasons for discounting this opinion as he did for discounting Plaintiff's. Id.

         The Court views an ALJ's credibility determination with deference and will reverse that determination only when it is “patently wrong.” Curvin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 645, 651 (7th Cir. 2015); Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010); Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008). When evaluating a claimant's subjective symptoms, an ALJ should consider the medications taken, functional limitations, allegations of pain, aggravating factors, objective medical evidence, and daily activities. Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3); SSR 16-3p. Notably, Plaintiff does not take issue with any of the specific justifications offered by the ALJ for discounting her subjective complaints and her husband's testimony. Regardless, they are all valid reasons for discounting these opinions absent any argument to the contrary. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), (f); 404.1529(c)(3). And the ALJ relied on and discussed substantial evidence to support his assertions regarding Plaintiff's reports to her doctors and their medical findings. See SSR 16-3p; R. 24-29, 102-24, 295-302, 319-23, 347-49, 716, 744, 761, 772, 790, 798, 813-16, 822, 825, 863-64, 870, 877, 881, 883-85, 957-59, 974, 979-80, 985, 991-92, 997-98, 1004-05, 1017, 1022, 1025, 1034, 1041-42, 1051, 1059-60, 1091-92, 1099-1100, 1110-11, 1117-18, 1207-09, 1258, 1261-63. The ALJ considered Plaintiff's complaints to doctors throughout her treatment history as well as her hearing testimony and her husband's opinions regarding the same. The ALJ discounted both and gave valid reasons for doing so which Plaintiff does not challenge. Therefore, the ALJ did not err by ignoring Plaintiff's subjective complaints or her husband's testimony.

         Relatedly, Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ “failed to mention the effect of [her] Hashimoto thyroiditis” and that this condition “could have caused many of the subjective complaints [she] had.”[10] Dkt. 14 at 8. In support, Plaintiff cites to one page of the the ALJ's decision (R. 28) and one page of Plaintiff's hearing testimony where she claimed she was spending 20 hours in bed per day due to fatigue (R. 101).[11] However, the ALJ accepted the medical diagnosis of Hashimoto thyroiditis and found it to be a severe impairment. R. 20, 26. Throughout his opinion, the ALJ discussed and cited to the medical evidence relating to-and Plaintiff's complaints to her treaters of-vertigo, extreme fatigue, weakness, and memory issues, before finding Plaintiff's subjective complaints related to these limitations not entirely consistent with the record. R. 24-29, 296-302, 553-55, 882, 973-75, 978-80, 985, 991-92, 997-98, 1004- 05, 1017, 1025, 1034, 1041-42, 1051, 1060, 1092, 1100, 1110-11, 1208-09. Thus, the ALJ did not ignore this impairment or Plaintiff's subjective complaints that “could” be related to it.[12] As discussed above, the ALJ gave valid reasons for discounting Plaintiff's subjective complaints that Plaintiff does not challenge. Plaintiff has identified no clear basis to find the ALJ erred when evaluating Plaintiff's subjective complaints related to Hashimoto thyroiditis.

         Plaintiff next argues the ALJ erred by substituting his own opinions for those of the medical professionals and making his own medical judgments. Dkt. 14 at 7, 9 (citing Back v. Barnhart, 63 Fed.Appx. 254, 259 (7th Cir. 2003); Whitney v. Schwieker, 695 F.2d 784, 787 (1982)). For example, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to account for “several times when the [she] had issues walking because both of her dizziness and lower leg weakness, ” citing to a treatment note she contends the ALJ “clearly overlooked.” Id. at 9. However, not only does the ALJ have no duty to evaluate every single piece of evidence in the record, Kastner v. Astrue, 697 ...

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