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Johnny T. v. Saul

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

January 9, 2020

JOHNNY T.,[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, about five years ago. (Administrative Record (R.) 155-161). He claimed that he became disabled as of April 4, 2014 (R. 155, 180), due to high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. (R. 180). Over the next two 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)in November 2017, and the parties consented to the jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) on January 25, 2018. [Dkt. #10]. 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 March 6, 1973, and was 41 at the time his claims he became unable to work, and just 31 when he quit working for good. (R. 155, 180). Prior to that, he worked as a janitor for the CHA for about ten years and then as a temp for a service agency sporadically for another five years. (R. 163-164, 197). He wasn't clear on whether he was laid off or whether he was fired because of a disagreement with his boss. (R. 38-40). He thought he could do a desk job but not anything where he had to stand because his legs cramp. (R. 52).

         The medical record covering plaintiff's treatment in this case is scant as these cases go; not even 100 pages. (R. 237-311). The plaintiff refers to fewer than 20 pages in support of his claim for benefits. [Dkt. # 14, at 3-6]. Indeed, the focus of plaintiff's argument for overturning the ALJ's decision is a single report from a psychiatrist who examined plaintiff once at the request of his attorney. [Dkt. # 14, at 9-14]. As such, we will dispense with a tedious review of the medical evidence and recount only that evidence that matters to the plaintiff in our analysis of his arguments.

         After an administrative hearing - at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified - the ALJ determined he was not disabled. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: congestive heart failure and hypertension. (R. 15). The ALJ then found that plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment assumed to be disabling in the Commissioner's listings, referring specifically to Listing 4.02 covering heart failure (R. 17). The ALJ found that plaintiff had no severe mental impairment, rejecting the assessment of the consulting examiner because the plaintiff didn't allege a mental impairment - his reasons for not being able to work were physical - the medical record made absolutely no mention of any mental health issues, and the examiner saw plaintiff on a single occasion. (R. 15-16, 22).

         The ALJ then determined that plaintiff could perform light work light work - which requires lifting/carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently - with the exception that he could only be on his feet standing/walking for four hours a day, two hours at a time, and sitting about six hours a day. (R. 17). He could not work at heights, climb ladders, or frequently negotiate stairs, and he had to avoid operating moving or dangerous machinery. (R. 17). The ALJ then summarized the medical record (R. 17-22), saying that he found 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. 19). Specifically, the ALJ cited plaintiff's daily activities and inconsistent statements as that “other evidence.” (R. 18-19). The ALJ then addressed the medical opinion evidence, giving “good weight” to the opinion of the consultative medical examiner because it was consistent with her objective findings and the treatment record. (R. 21). He, again, gave little weight to the consulting psychiatrist who examined plaintiff at the request of plaintiff's attorney. (R. 22).

         Next, the ALJ - relying on the testimony of the vocational expert - found that plaintiff was capable of performing Light work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Examples of such work were: packer (DOT #559.687-074, 300, 000 jobs), sorter (DOT #222.687-022, 50, 000 jobs), and (DOT #739.687-030). (R. 23). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled and was not entitled to SSI under the Act. (R. 23).


         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). 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). It's a low hurdle to negotiate. Biestek v. Berryhill, __U.S. __, __, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court reviews the record as a whole, Biestek, 139 S.Ct. at 1154, 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 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... 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.”).[2]

         On the other hand, the Seventh Circuit has described the logical bridge requirement as “lax.” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 415 (7th Cir. 2008); Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th Cir.2008). Indeed, the Seventh Circuit has allowed that even a sketchy opinion is sufficient if it assures a reviewing court that an ALJ has considered the important evidence and enables the court to trace his reasoning. 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). Viewed properly, the “logical bridge” requirement is not about elegantia juris or aesthetics. The ALJ need not build the Pont Neuf. A simple span will suffice so long as it allows the reviewing court to traverse the divide between the evidence and the ALJ's conclusions. 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). Perfection is no more required in a Social Security case than in any other kind of case. Damayanti v. Gonzales, 209 Fed.Appx. 601, 603 (7th Cir. 2006); Wilcox v. Comm'r of Soc. Security, 2018 WL 4090328, at *4 (W.D.N.Y. 2018). The ALJ's explanations here more than satisfy the obligations of Sarchet.


         The plaintiff raises two arguments[3] in favor of overturning the ALJ's decision: (1) the ALJ's rejection of the consulting psychiatrist's opinion was not supported by substantial evidence and was flawed by legal error; and (2) the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff could do jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy was not supported by substantial evidence. As it happens, the plaintiff's issues with the ALJ's decision turn on two competing views of what expert witnesses bring to the table. The plaintiff wanted the ALJ to believe his expert witness - the psychiatrist his attorneys sent him to - and disbelieve the Social Security agency's expert witness - the vocational expert who testified at his administrative hearing. The ALJ chose the agency's expert. Under the circumstances of this case, the ALJ's conclusion should not be disturbed.


         We start with Dr. Amdur. Plaintiff applied for SSI on April 25, 2014. (R. 155-61). He was already represented by counsel at that time. (R. 97-98). His application was denied, initially, on August 28, 2014. (R. 78-86). The medical record at that time was sparse, and there was no inkling of anything resembling a psychological impairment. The doctor who reviewed the record for the Agency determined that plaintiff could do light work and had no other limitations. (R. 82-83). It was shortly thereafter, on September 10, 2014, that plaintiff's counsel sent him to Dr. Amdur to have a psychiatric examination. (R. 269). Dr. Amdur recounted his mental status examination of plaintiff:

[Plaintiff] walked with normal gait. There is no bizarre or inappropriate behavior, but as noted throughout the interview he is slumped and withdrawn, consistent with depression. He is mildly obese. Personal hygiene and grooming were modest. He sat calmly through the interview. His attention could be focused and he generally seemed to understand the questions put to him. He was cooperative. He seemed moderately tense and apprehensive. Speech was relevant and coherent but very apathetic. Speech was slowed and underproductive. He spoke softly. His voice was weak. The conversation was easily directed. Affect was prominently blunted and depressed. At times, he seemed vaguely annoyed with questioning. There is marked avoidance of eye contact. There are no delusions. There are paranoid trends, ideas of reference. There is ...

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