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Lawrence J. v. Saul

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

January 9, 2020

LAWRENCE J., [1] Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Lawrence J. seeks disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) based on his claim that after years of working as a machine assembler and an engineering technician, he became disabled at the age of 59 by several conditions, including severe migraines, sarcoidosis, and degenerative disc and joint disease. Lawrence filed this lawsuit for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying his DIB application. Before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Lawrence's motion is granted, and the government's is denied:

         Procedural History

         Lawrence filed his DIB application in April 2016, alleging a disability onset date of March 30, 2015. (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) 172.) After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, (id. at 86, 102), Lawrence sought and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Following the hearing, at which Lawrence testified along with a medical expert (“ME”) and a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that Lawrence is not disabled. (Id. at 27.) When the Appeals Council declined Lawrence's request for review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015). Lawrence then timely filed this action, and the parties consented to this court's jurisdiction, see (R. 6); 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ followed the standard five-step sequence in evaluating Lawrence's DIB application. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At steps one and two, the ALJ determined that Lawrence has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date and that he has severe impairments in the form of migraine headaches, sarcoidosis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, hypertension, and mild obesity. (A.R. 19.) The ALJ also considered Lawrence's cognitive disorder at step two but determined that it is not a severe impairment. He reasoned that although Lawrence demonstrated some problems with short-term recall, he had never sought or received treatment and examinations performed by other medical providers revealed that his cognitive functioning is intact. The ALJ also gave great weight to the consulting physicians who all opined that Lawrence has no more than mild, non-severe limitations in any of the paragraph B criteria. (Id. at 20-21.)

         After determining at step three that none of Lawrence's impairments meets or medically equals any listing, the ALJ turned to the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment and found that Lawrence can perform light work with some additional postural and environmental limitations. (Id. at 22.) The ALJ explained that he gave great weight to the ME's opinion that Lawrence can perform light work and observed that his headaches were largely controlled with conservative treatment. (Id. at 23-24.) He also noted that Lawrence's “treatment records consistently reflect intact cognitive functions, such as normal alertness and orientation, and intact comprehension.” (Id. at 24.)

         The ALJ found at step four that Lawrence is not able to perform his past relevant work. (Id. at 25.) At step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony and concluded that based on the assigned RFC, Lawrence has skills that would transfer to the work of a dye design checker, a job which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at 26-27.) The ALJ overruled Lawrence's objection to the VE's calculation of the number of available jobs, concluding that the VE properly explained his methodology and provided reliable testimony. (Id. at 27.) Based on these determinations, the ALJ found that Lawrence is not disabled.


         Lawrence argues that the ALJ committed reversible error in assessing his RFC by failing to properly support the decision to exclude nonexertional limitations that would accommodate his headaches and cognitive problems. He also argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated his subjective symptoms and erred at step five in accepting the VE's testimony with respect to the availability of the dye design checker job. In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the court asks only whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision has the support of substantial evidence. See Burmester v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 507, 510 (7th Cir. 2019). Substantial evidence 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) (quotation and citations omitted). Although the court's role is not to reweigh the evidence or second-guess the ALJ's judgment, the court will ensure that the ALJ's decision is free of legal error, adequately explained, and supported by “a logical bridge from the evidence” to the ALJ's conclusion. See Minnick, 775 F.3d at 935 (quotation and citation omitted).

         A. RFC Assessment

         Lawrence first argues that the ALJ's RFC assessment lacks the support of substantial evidence because, according to him, it fails to accommodate non-exertional limitations stemming from his headache pain and cognitive symptoms. Specifically, Lawrence argues that he has greater than mild limitations in the areas of understanding, remembering, or applying information, concentration, persistence or keeping pace, and interacting with others. Starting with alleged social interaction limitations, Lawrence acknowledges that the ALJ found that he has no limitations in interacting with others because Lawrence did not mention any difficulty in that area at the hearing and the record shows he spends time with family and friends, including caring for his young grandson. Lawrence does not argue that the ALJ's reasoning here is unsupported. He instead asserts that he has “daily” episodes of “spacing out” and headaches causing vision distortions and argues that he cannot interact with others “when constantly confronted with such disorienting distractions.” (R. 11, Pl.'s Mem. at 9.) First, Lawrence cites no evidence to support his claims that he is “constantly” disoriented, and the record reflects only limited episodes of “spacing out, ” mostly in March 2015. (A.R. 405.) Second, more recent medical records show that by the fall of 2017 Lawrence had “near resolution” of his vision symptoms. (Id. at 1117.) Third, and most importantly, Lawrence speculates about what the evidence might mean, and essentially asks this court to substitute its judgment for the ALJ's with respect to how his conditions impact his ability to interact with others, which this court cannot do. Thus, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to assign no limitations in the social interaction domain.

         Lawrence also faults the ALJ for finding that he has only mild limitations in the areas of understanding, remembering and applying information and concentration, persistence, or pace. Lawrence argues that in so finding, the ALJ improperly rested his determination on Lawrence's daily activities and ability to provide information about his health and work history. But Lawrence neglects to acknowledge that the ALJ also based his decision on the opinions of the consulting physicians, all of whom agreed that Lawrence has no more than mild limitations in these domains. The ALJ explained that he gave great weight to those expert opinions because they were consistent with the record and supported by the fact that Lawrence has never sought or received treatment for mental limitations. (Id. at 20-21.) Lawrence points to the findings of the examining psychologist, Dr. Chirag Raval, who diagnosed him as having a cognitive disorder and explained that Lawrence “does have some issues with concentration and memory that are evident on exam.” (Id. at 616-17.) Citing Dr. Raval's findings, Lawrence argues that his limitations are more than mild. (R. 11, Pl.'s Mem. at 10.) But the state consulting physicians had access to Dr. Raval's report, and they concluded that his findings, including the diagnosis of cognitive disorder, reflect only mild limitations. Lawrence does not challenge the ALJ's decision giving great weight to the consulting physicians' assessments nor point to any evidence showing that the ALJ overlooked or glossed over the severity of his cognitive issue. Accordingly, Lawrence has not shown that this aspect of the ALJ's decision lacks the support of substantial evidence.

         However, Lawrence gains traction when he argues that the ALJ failed to adequately explain the decision to exclude from the RFC accommodations for his mild limitations in the domains of understanding, applying, and remembering information, and concentration, persistence, or pace. It is well-established that in crafting the RFC, the ALJ is required to consider the combination of all of the claimant's impairments, including those that are not severe. See Ray v. Berryhill, 915 F.3d 486, 492 (7th Cir. 2019). Although by no means is it a given that a mild limitation in mental functioning will impact a claimant's ability to secure employment, see Sawyer v. Colvin, 512 Fed.Appx. 603, 611 (7th Cir. 2013), the ALJ is still required to evaluate the effect of any mild limitations on the RFC, Simon-Leveque v. Colvin, 229 F.Supp.3d 778, 787 (N.D. Ill. 2017). Courts in this circuit have routinely remanded ALJs' decisions that fail to explain how mild limitations in mental functioning assessed at step two are reflected in the RFC evaluation. See, e.g., Judy D. v. Saul, No. 17 CV 8994, 2019 WL 3805592, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 13, 2019); Diaz v. Berryhill, No. 2:17-cv-314, 2018 WL 4627218, at *5 (N.D. Ind. Sept. 27, 2018) (collecting cases); see also Muzzarelli v. Astrue, No. 10 CV 7570, 2011 WL 5873793, at *23 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 18, 2011) (holding that if ALJ believed mild limitations assessed at step two “did not merit a non-exertional limitation in the ...

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