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Shaun R. v. Saul

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

December 16, 2019

SHAUN R., [1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381a, 1382c, over four years ago. (Administrative Record (R.) 210-215). He claimed that he became disabled as of February 18, 2014, due to bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and a learning disability. (R. 210, 243). Over the ensuing three years, plaintiff's application was denied at every level of administrative review: initial, reconsideration, administrative law judge (ALJ), and appeals council. It is the ALJ's decision that is before the court for review. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.955; 404.981. Plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) on August 16, 2018. [Dkt. #8]. The case was reassigned to me on January 10, 2019. [Dkt. # 22]. Plaintiff asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.


         Plaintiff was born on October 16, 1980 (R. 192), and was just 29 years old when he claims he became unable to ever work again. (R. 210). He has a spotty work record, at best, having had five jobs in his adult life, and never one for more than a month or two. (R. 245). Most recently, he worked in retail sales for a wireless company from October 2103 to February 2014. (R. 245). He didn't get along with his boss, had an argument with him, and was let go. (R. 243). Child support orders in the record indicate that, while he was not working from 2004 through 2006, he fathered three children by three different women. (R. 196-208). He reported to one of his mental healthcare providers it was seven children with five different women. (R. 446). He currently lives with his mother and his finance. (R. 43). His fiancé drives him around because his license was suspended for not paying child support. (R. 45). He spends his days watching televison and doing his hobbies - working on cars, doing puzzles, and drawing - which he says he handles very well. (R. 266). He goes out a couple of times a week, perhaps to a movie. He also goes to the gym and the park every couple of days. (R. 266).

         After an administrative hearing - at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified - the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairment of major depressive disorder/bipolar disorder. (R. 17). Plaintiff was also obese, but it was not severe as it caused no more than minimal limitations to plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities. (R. 18). The ALJ went on to determine that plaintiff's psychological impairment caused a mild limitation in understanding, remembering, or applying information; a moderate limitation in interacting with others; a moderate limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and no limitation in adapting or managing himself. (R. 20-21). But, because not one area was affected to a marked level, the ALJ found that plaintiff's psychological impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment assumed to be disabling in the Commissioner's listings. (R. 21).

         The ALJ then stated that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations due to his psychological impairment: “lacks the ability to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions because of the moderate limitations in concentration, but retains the concentration necessary for simple work of a routine type if given normal workplace breaks . . . Would be unable to maintain assembly line or production pace employment because of moderate limitations in pace, but maintains the ability to perform work permitting a more flexible pace; because of moderate difficulties interacting with others, may only engage in brief and superficial contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public; can work in proximity to others but should not work on joint or shared tasks.” (R. 21). The ALJ next found that plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for reasons explained in this decision.” (R. 22). In this regard the ALJ felt that medical evidence, course of treatment, medications and overall functioning did not support the plaintiff's alleged disabling symptoms. (R. 22).

         The ALJ then summarized the record of plaintiff's sessions with his doctors and therapists, noting that treatment was conservative and relatively limited. (R. 23-24). Also, she found that plaintiff's daily activities are not as limited as one would expect given the degree of limitations he alleged. (R. 24). The ALJ also assessed the medical opinion evidence. The psychiatrist who examined plaintiff in connection with his application noted that while plaintiff had a number of complaints regarding depression and anxiety, he did not present that way, and the doctor questioned his reliability. (R. 26). The ALJ gave great weight to this opinion, finding it consistent with the medical evidence overall. (R. 26). The ALJ accorded record could communicate with co-workers and supervisors, follow and retain most instructions, perform simple, routine tasks, but would have difficulty handling moderate work stress. The ALJ did not find the opinion of the psychiatrist who saw plaintiff on four occasions in 2014-15 that plaintiff was disabled entitled to great weight because it was not supported by the treatment notes and disability was a determination reserved for the Commissioner. (R. 26). The ALJ also found the opinion of plaintiff's therapist entitled to limited weight as it was based on an uncritical acceptance of plaintiff's subjective reports, and was not from an acceptable medical source. (R. 27). The ALJ gave great weight to the opinions of the state agency reviewing physicians as they are familiar with the criteria for entitlement to SSI and their opinions were consistent with the medical record. (R. 27).

         Next, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could not return to his past work in sales because it was skilled work and obviously required more contact with the public than the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding allowed. (R. 27). The ALJ then relied on the testimony of the vocational expert and found that given his residual functional capacity, plaintiff could perform the following jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: laundry laborer (DOT #361.687-018; 110, 000 jobs nationally), kitchen helper (DOT #318.687-010; 278, 000 jobs nationally), and automotive detailer (DOT #915.687-034; 76, 000). (R. 28). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled and was not entitled to benefits under the Act. (R. 28-29).


         If the ALJ's decision is supported by “substantial evidence, ” the court on judicial review must uphold that decision even if the court might have decided the case differently in the first instance. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Smith v. Berryhill, U.S., 139 S.Ct. 1765, n.19 (2019). 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); Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 836 (7th Cir. 2014). Accord Biestek v. Berryhill, U.S., 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2019). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court reviews the record as a whole but does not attempt to substitute its judgment for the ALJ's by reweighing the evidence, resolving material conflicts, or reconsidering facts or the credibility of witnesses. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837. “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is entitled to benefits, ” the court must defer to the Commissioner's resolution of that conflict. Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir.1997); Schloesser v. Berryhill, 870 F.3d 712, 717 (7th Cir. 2017)

         But, in the Seventh Circuit, the ALJ also has an obligation to build what is called an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result to afford the claimant meaningful judicial review of the administrative findings. Varga v. Colvin, 794 F.3d 809, 813 (7th Cir. 2015); O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir.2010). The court has to be able to trace the path of the ALJ's reasoning from evidence to conclusion. Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 938 (7th Cir. 2015); Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 812 (7th Cir. 2011). Even if the court agrees with the ultimate result, the case must be remanded if the ALJ fails in his or her obligation to build that logical bridge. Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 1996)(“. . . we cannot uphold a decision by an administrative agency, any more than we can uphold a decision by a district court, if, while there is enough evidence in the record to support the decision, the reasons given by the trier of fact do not build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result.”); but see, e.g., Riley v. City of Kokomo, 909 F.3d 182, 188 (7th Cir. 2018)(“But we need not address either of those issues here because, even if [plaintiff] were correct on both counts, we may affirm on any basis appearing in the record, . . . .”); Steimel v. Wernert, 823 F.3d 902, 917 (7th Cir. 2016)(“We have serious reservations about this decision, which strikes us as too sweeping. Nonetheless, we may affirm on any basis that fairly appears in the record.”); Kidwell v. Eisenhauer, 679 F.3d 957, 965 (7th Cir. 2012)(“[District court] did not properly allocate the burden of proof on the causation element between the parties, . . . No. matter, because we may affirm on any basis that appears in the record.”).

         At the same time, the Seventh Circuit has also called this requirement “lax.” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 415 (7th Cir. 2008); Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th Cir. 2008). “If a sketchy opinion assures us that the ALJ considered the important evidence, and the opinion enables us to trace the path of the ALJ's reasoning, the ALJ has done enough.” Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287-88 (7th Cir. 1985); see also Mogg v. Barnhart, 199 Fed.Appx. 572, 576 (7th Cir. 2006); Brindisi ex rel. Brindisi v. Barnhart, 315 F.3d 783, 787 (7th Cir. 2003).



         As is generally the case with plaintiffs claiming disability based on psychological issues like depression or anxiety, page after page of therapists' notes show that plaintiff is sometimes depressed, sometimes better, sometimes fine. Invariably, a plaintiff will recount issues with family, spouses, or significant others, and plaintiff here is no different. There's not much in records like these to suggest whether a plaintiff can work or cannot. So, these are always difficult cases for an ALJ to sift through. And, this one, is made more difficult due to the variances in the tales the plaintiff has told the ALJ and his mental healthcare providers.

         In his brief, plaintiff states that he spends three weeks at a time in bed, or that for 75% of the time, he is so depressed he cannot get out of bed. [Dkt.#13, at 2, 11]. Yet, there is only a single reference to anything like this in the therapy notes. However, when plaintiff told Dr. Fatyga that he spent three weeks in bed in September 2015 and attempted suicide by pills. (R. 425). But records contemporaneous to September 2015[2] make no reference to any such episode. On September 3rd, plaintiff was assessed as stable, generally calm, and his main issue was with his mother not liking their new puppy. (R. 438). He denied any suicidal ideas. (R. 346, 347). On September 30th, at a physical exam, plaintiff was in no distress, displayed normal mood, affect, and ...

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