United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
R. HARJANI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Tasha C. seeks judicial review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her
application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Tasha asks the
Court to reverse and remand the ALJ's decision, and the
Commissioner moves for its affirmance. For the reasons set
forth below, the ALJ's decision is reversed and this case
is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this
Memorandum Opinion and Order.
suffered a workplace injury in March 2009, which led to Tasha
undergoing rotator cuff surgery in October 2009 and anterior
spinal discectomy and fusion surgery in May 2011. (R. 367-70,
419, 732). In July 2012, Tasha left her job as a machine and
line operator due to worsening back pain. Id. at
44-46. Near the time of her exit, she presented to pain
specialist, Dr. Jalaja Piska, with intense low back pain,
numbness, tingling and weakness. Id. at 398. Tasha
further reported difficulties with sleeping, walking,
standing, and getting up from a sitting position.
Id. Additionally, Tasha informed Dr. Piska that it
was difficult for Tasha to stand, walk, or sit for long
periods of time. Id.
subsequent medical record is immense and details Tasha
undergoing surgery, physical therapy, and more in response to
a wide array of ailments. For instance, the treatment records
describe Tasha's February 2013 left knee surgery after a
meniscus tear, (R. 968, 971), as well as several emergency
room visits for knee, neck, shoulder, and back pain in 2013.
See, e.g., Id. at 1073, 1094, 1184, and 1210.
According to her treatment records, Tasha underwent a series
of left knee injections in June 2014, id. at 977,
had corrective surgery on her right shoulder in July 2015,
id. at 1392-1393, and received epidural steroid
injections for cervical radiculopathy in February 2017.
Id. at 1548. Tasha participated in physical therapy
for her left knee and right shoulder in the fall of 2015,
id. at 1655, for cervical spine and shoulder pain
over the span of several months in 2016, and for cervical
spine pain in early 2017. Id. at 1799, 1874, 1890,
record is varied on the success of these treatments. As an
example, Tasha was discharged from physical therapy in
November 2016 with Physical Therapist Wendy Jorjorian stating
that Tasha had a full range of motion in her neck and
shoulders, and that her pain and radicular symptoms had been
abolished. (R. 1890). Yet only a few months later, Tasha
began physical therapy again for cervical spine pain,
reporting that she was experiencing anywhere from 3/10 to
10/10 pain and numbness in her right hand. Id. at
1894, 1907. Following that report, Tasha received epidural
steroid injections for cervical radiculopathy. Id.
midst of these medical treatments, Tasha attempted to work.
At her hearing before the ALJ, Tasha testified that she
started numerous jobs that lasted only a couple of days to a
couple of weeks, due to her injuries. According to Tasha, her
job as an assembly line packer in 2015 ended after a couple
of days because she could not remain standing. (R. 44). Tasha
testified that in 2016 she started two machine operating jobs
that ended prematurely due to the pain she was experiencing
in her legs and because of her knee injuries. Id. at
42-43. In December 2016, Tasha obtained a temporary
assignment stocking shelves for a department store, which
lasted approximately ten days. Id. at 39-41.
filed applications for disability benefits in September 2014,
alleging disability beginning July 10, 2012. (R. 233).
Tasha's claim was initially denied on December 15, 2014,
and upon reconsideration on April 8, 2015. Id. at
116-19, 121-25. Upon Tasha's written request for a
hearing, she appeared before ALJ Diane S. Davis on two
occasions. At the first hearing, on September 21, 2016, the
ALJ continued the hearing because Tasha was waiting on
medical records from the 2015 to 2016 time period.
Id. at 80-83. Dr. Ashok G. Jilhewar, who appeared as
a medical expert, testified that he could not state his
opinion without reviewing the missing records. Id.
at 82-83. At the second hearing, on February 17, 2017, the
ALJ heard testimony from Tasha and the vocational expert,
Robert Burkins. Id. at 33. However, no medical
expert appeared or presented testimony at the second hearing.
28, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Tasha's
application for disability benefits. (R. 23). The opinion
followed the required five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Tasha had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 10,
2012, the alleged onset date. (R. 16). At step two, the ALJ
found that Tasha had the severe impairments of status-post
lumbar fusion, right shoulder arthropathy, with two repairs
to rotator cuff, and degenerative joint disease of the left
knee, status-post left knee medial meniscus repair.
Id. at 17. At step three, the ALJ determined that
Tasha did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one
of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and
404.1526). Id. at 17-18.
then concluded that Tasha retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined
in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that she:
can lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally, and ten
pounds frequently. She can stand and/or walk for four hours
total in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks and sit for
about six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks.
She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb.
She can frequently reach in all directions with the right,
dominant upper extremity.
18). Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that
Tasha could not perform her past relevant work as a machine
feeder. Id. at 21-22. At step five, the ALJ found
that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that Tasha could perform. Id. at
22-23. Specifically, the ALJ found Tasha could work as an
injection mold machine tender or sorter. Id. at 22.
Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Tasha was
not disabled. Id. at 23. The Appeals Council denied
Tasha's request for review on May 4, 2018, leaving the
ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Id. at 1; McHenry v. Berryhill, 911 F.3d
866, 871 (7th Cir. 2018).
the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled,
the ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry: (1) whether the
claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant
has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's
impairment meets or equals any of the listings found in the
regulations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P,
App. 1 (2004); (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform
her former occupation; and (5) whether the claimant is unable
to perform any other available work in light of her age,
education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868
(7th Cir. 2000). These steps are to be performed
sequentially. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). “An
affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on
Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A
negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the
inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not
disabled.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (quoting
Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir.
review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining
whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial
evidence or based upon a legal error. Steele v.
Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). 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).
“Although this standard is generous, it is not entirely
uncritical.” Steele, 290 F.3d at 940. Where
the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary
support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful
review, the case must be remanded.” Id.
found Tasha not disabled at step five of the sequential
analysis because she retains the RFC to perform other work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
Tasha argues that the ALJ committed several reversible
errors. First, Tasha asserts that the ALJ relied upon
improper inferences and engaged in cherry picking to reject
her symptom allegations. Doc.  at 7-11. Second, Tasha
states that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions.
Id. at 11-12. Third, Tasha contends that the ALJ
tailored the RFC assessment to “eke out a
finding” that Tasha is not disabled. Id. at
12-13. Finally, Tasha argues that the ALJ erroneously
accepted the vocational expert's testimony regarding
available jobs that Tasha would be able to perform.
Id. at 13-14.
Court finds that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical
opinions in this case, mischaracterized the record, and
failed to properly develop the medical evidence. These
errors, in combination, are not harmless. Accordingly, for
the reasons discussed below, the ALJ's decision must be
Weighing of Medical Opinions
argues that the ALJ “virtually ignored” the
regulatory factors in weighing the medical opinions of
treating and non-treating physicians. Doc.  at 11.
According to Tasha, the ALJ “simply assigned little or
no weight to each professional's opinion, without any
discussion of the regulatory factors, and seemingly without
regard to what the opinion was.” Id.
opinion of a treating source is entitled to controlling
weight if the opinion “is well-supported by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and
is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in
[the] record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2);
Kaminski v. Berryhill, 894 F.3d 870, 874, 874 n.1
(7th Cir. 2018) (for claims filed before March 27, 2017, an
ALJ “should give controlling weight to the treating
physician's opinion as long as it is supported by medical
findings and consistent with substantial evidence in the
record.”). An ALJ must “offer good reasons for
discounting a treating physician's opinion.”
Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir.
2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted);
see also Walker v. Berryhill, 900 F.3d 479, 485 (7th
Cir. 2018). Those reasons must be “supported by
substantial evidence in the record; a contradictory opinion
of a non-examining physician does not, by itself,
suffice.” Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467,
470 (7th Cir. 2003). “If an ALJ does not give a
treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the
regulations require the ALJ to consider the length, ...