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Munns v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

February 25, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


William M. Conley District Judge

Plaintiff Kevin Munns seeks judicial review of a final decision of defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, finding him not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The central issue in this case is whether the ALJ erred when he failed to credit the claimant’s Crohn’s disease under the de minimis threshold at step two of the evaluation process. For reasons discussed below, the court will remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


On October 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Munns not disabled. (AR 10-17.) In that decision, the ALJ followed the sequential disability evaluation process set out by the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Munns had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of his alleged disability. (AR 12.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Munns had medical impairments resulting from Crohn’s Disease but found they were not “severe” because none were expected to limit Munns’ work abilities significantly for a 12-month period. (AR 12-13.) Because the ALJ found that Munns had no severe impairment, he determined that he was not disabled. (AR 17.)[1] Ultimately, this was adopted as the Commissioner’s final decision.


When a federal court reviews a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security, the Commissioner’s findings of fact are “conclusive, ” so long as they are supported by “substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Evidence is substantial if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.” Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004).

While this means administrative disability determinations are reviewed with deference, a district court may not simply “rubber stamp” the Commissioner’s decision without a critical review of the evidence. See Ehrhart v. Sec’y of Health and Human Servs., 969 F.2d 534, 538 (7th Cir. 1992). In particular, a decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). Similarly, the ALJ must “explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Id.; see Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

Applying this standard, Munns argues that the ALJ failed to properly apply step two in light of the medical evidence correlating with his diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease. The Commissioner’s response challenges Munns’ contention. While acknowledging that the step-two inquiry is intended to operate as a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless or frivolous claims, Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987), the Commissioner argues that the ALJ was justified in throwing out Munns’ claim at this early stage in the analysis in light of the Seventh Circuit’s holding in Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836 (7th Cir. 2007).

In Skinner, the plaintiff asserted that her limitations in walking, standing, sitting, and reaching were reasonably related to her diagnoses of diabetes and hypertension. 478 F.3d at 844-45. The Seventh Circuit nevertheless held that these impairments did not satisfy step two because the ALJ’s conclusion that “the record medical evidence established that [the plaintiff’s] symptoms [were] largely controlled with proper medication and treatment” was supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 845. Because the claimant could not satisfy the second step of the evaluation process, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the ALJ’s decision.[2] Id. The Court explained that “the existence of [the plaintiff’s] diagnoses and symptoms does not mean the ALJ was required to find that [the plaintiff] suffered disabling [i.e., severe] impairments.” Id.

It is understandable for the Commissioner to rely on Skinner for the general proposition that for a claimant to get past step two, he must establish a sustained, severe limitation persisting despite medication and treatment, but the Commissioner ignores key factual differences between Munns and the claimant in Skinner that are critical to the present analysis.[3] Unlike Skinner, there is nothing in the medical record to suggest that Munns’ Crohn’s disease can be controlled with proper medication or treatment. On the contrary, there seems more than enough evidence to suggest that Munns meets the de minimis threshold, and there is certainly evidence of his condition lasting 12 months.[4](AR 215-74.) For example, on September 8, 2011, Dr. Schlack-Haerer documented that even with treatment, apparently including surgery, “[Munns] still does have some ongoing symptoms, namely some intermittent bouts of abdominal crampy-type pain, gassiness, bloating, fatigue and perhaps some minimal recent weight loss.” (AR 200.) On October 7, 2011, Munns presented again before Dr. Schlack-Haerer. At that time, he was noted to have “fairly chronic intermittent abdominal pain.” (AR 218.)

On May 14, 2012, notes reflect that “[Munns] has a history of Crohn's disease, primarily involving the terminal ileum - status post terminal ileal resection with ileacolonic anastomosis many years ago. . . . Currently some of his symptoms sound suspicious for either recurrent/active Crohn's disease or recurrent obstructive symptoms.” (AR 255.) Dr. Schlack-Haerer also recorded his impressions.

[Munns’] symptoms of escalating abdominal pain have certainly been interfering with his quality of life and his ability to pursue gainful employment. I believe that his current status warrants a disability status as we pursue correction of the problem. He is having a considerable amount of abdominal pain as well as weight loss and iron deficiency anemia. I do not think that this issue is amenable to endoscopic dilation or other intervention.

(AR 256 (emphasis added).)

In light of Dr. Schlack-Haerer’s notes as the claimant’s treating physician, and given the low threshold required to satisfy step two, there is more than enough objective medical evidence to support Munns claim proceeding at least past step two of the evaluation process.[5] As such, the case is ...

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