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Jonie G. v. Saul

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

December 10, 2019

Jonie G., Plaintiff,
Andrew Marshall Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Lisa A. Jensen United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Jonie G. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) challenging the denial of disability benefits. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and an application for supplemental security income on July 18, 2014. R. 264-71. Plaintiff initially alleged a disability date beginning April 10, 2010 but then amended to October 25, 2014. R. 285. The date last insured is December 31, 2014. R. 136. These applications were initially denied on October 29, 2014 and upon reconsideration on February 9, 2015. R. 121, 133, 150, 165. Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing on March 2, 2015. R. 203-04. On April 5, 2016, a hearing was held by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Barry A. Miller. R. 76-109. Plaintiff, represented by an attorney, appeared and testified via video conference. An impartial vocational expert (VE) also appeared and testified. After the hearing, the ALJ attempted to secure a medical source statement from Plaintiff's primary care provider, Dr. David Hansen. R. 992-93. Dr. Hansen responded stating that he did not perform a functional capacity evaluation on Plaintiff and is not managing her foot care. R. 1008. He did not provide an opinion regarding Plaintiff's functional capacity. Id.

         On December 27, 2016, the ALJ issued his written opinion denying Plaintiff's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. R. 180. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. R. 5-8. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).

         B. Medical History

         Plaintiff has a medical history of diabetes mellitus type 2, hypertension, lower extremity neuropathy, diabetic foot ulcers, and right knee arthritis. R. 24. Her great right toe was amputated in 2010. Id. Plaintiff developed a septic knee joint requiring arthroscopic irrigation and debridement on October 25, 2014. R. 847. In November of 2014, Plaintiff's left third toe was amputated due to osteomyelitis. R. 859.

         Dr. Nathan Norem, Plaintiff's podiatrist, has treated Plaintiff's diabetic foot ulcers and diabetic neuropathy since 2010. R. 940. From November 2014 to January 2017, Plaintiff has seen Dr. Norem about forty-one times. See R. 24-75, 875-902, 945-90. In a February 27, 2015 medical source statement, Dr. Norem noted that Plaintiff could not walk a single block without pain, required a cane, could not lift ten pounds, could not stand for more than thirty minutes, must keep her feet elevated for 90% of a workday, could not sit for more than four hours, would be absent from work more than 25% of the time, needed to shift positions frequently, was suffering from foot ulcers and neuropathy, and will continue to suffer infections and ulcerations for at least twelve months as her feet were deformed. R. 940-43.

         In August 2016, Plaintiff had her left fourth toe amputated. R. 45. Plaintiff also had a revisional right foot first ray amputation in December 2016. R. 58. From September to December of 2016, Dr. Norem advised Plaintiff to elevate her feet and minimize activity. R. 47- 56. In a January 26, 2017 letter, Dr. Norem wrote that Plaintiff cannot tolerate standing or walking for extended periods of time and that Plaintiff is potentially putting her life at risk every time she develops another foot ulceration. R. 21. Dr. Norem reiterated that his February 27, 2015 medical assessment included all of Plaintiff's ongoing issues including the need to elevate her foot because of swelling and the high risk of ulcerations. Id. He explained that while Plaintiff's swollen foot is not documented in every single note/visit, that does not mean it does not happen or will continue to happen. Id.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         In his written decision denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits, the ALJ went through the five-step analysis for determining whether a person is disabled under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. R. 173. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, history of osteomyelitis, history of toe amputation, peripheral neuropathy, and degenerative joint disease of the left knee. R. 174. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, paying particular attention to listings 1.02, 1.05, 9.00, and 11.14. Id.

         Before moving to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has a residual functional capacity (RFC), which is what Plaintiff can do despite her limitations, to perform sedentary work except she can lift and carry five pounds frequently and ten pounds occasionally, can stand and/or walk only with an assistive device and for no more than ten minutes at a time, can occasionally push and pull with the bilateral lower extremities, can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, crouch, and crawl, can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or kneel, can frequently stoop, must avoid even moderate exposure to hazards, must avoid concentrated exposure to wetness and vibrations, must be allowed to change posture frequently, being able to shift between siting and standing for one minute at a time while remaining on task at least 85% of the time. R. 175.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as an administrative assistant and as a receptionist as generally performed. R. 180. Because of this finding at step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and did not move on to step five. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).


         The reviewing court reviews the ALJ's determination to see if it is supported by “substantial evidence, ” meaning “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moore v. Colvin,743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Richardson v. Perales,402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Accordingly, the reviewing court takes a very limited role and cannot displace the decision by reconsidering facts or evidence or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). “The ALJ is not required to mention every piece of evidence but must provide an ‘accurate and logical bridge' between the evidence and the conclusion that the claimant is not disabled, so that ‘as a reviewing court, we may assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford [the] claimant meaningful judicial review.'” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1002 (7th Cir. 2004)). An ALJ only needs to “minimally articulate his reasons for crediting or rejecting evidence of disability.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 870 (7th Cir. 2000). But even when adequate record evidence exists to support the ALJ's decision, the decision will ...

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