United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER REVERSING THE COMMISSIONER'S
DENIAL OF SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY BENEFITS AND REMANDING
FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS
PAMELA PEPPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
John Anderson seeks judicial review of the final decision of
the acting Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner),
who found that Anderson was not “disabled” within
the meaning of the Social Security Act. The Social Security
Administration's Appeals Council denied review, making
the administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision the final
decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481;
Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir.
applied the five-step analysis in 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4) and found that Anderson had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged November 2,
2012, date of disability (step one). He also found that
Anderson's alcohol dependence and anxiety disorder are
severe impairments; his other mental impairments, however,
are non-severe, as are all his physical impairments of blood
disorders, hypertension, chest pain, hip pain and other
musculoskeletal symptoms, cholesterol issues, difficulty
hearing, history of tongue cancer, and gastro-esophageal
reflux (step two), and that Anderson does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal
the listing of impairments found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, App. 1 (step three).
further found that Anderson has the residual functional
capacity (RFC) for a full range of work at all exertional
levels with the following non-exertional limitations:
allowing him to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks at
a job in which he can be off task up to five to ten percent
of the work period, with only occasional changes in the
work-setting and no fast-paced work. Consequently, he is not
able to perform any past relevant work (step four). However,
using the medical vocational guidelines as a framework for
decision-making, and considering Anderson's age,
education, past work experience (with the transferability of
work skills not being material) and RFC, the ALJ found that
substantial gainful employment as a kitchen helper, laundry
worker, cleaner of vehicles/equipment and machine bearer or
off bearer would be available in significant numbers in the
national economy (step five) and, therefore, Anderson was not
disabled through the February 19, 2015, date of the decision.
contends that the case should be remanded for a further
hearing, because the ALJ improperly minimized the opinion of
treating physician Dr. Francis J. Cuevas, a specialist in
blood disorders, after improperly finding that Anderson's
blood disease is not severe. Further, Anderson contends
that the RFC fails to account for his panic attacks.
uphold the denial of benefits, the ALJ's decision must be
supported by substantial evidence, which is “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Barnett v.
Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004). 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 v.
Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 836-37 (7th Cir. 2014). An
ALJ's credibility determination is entitled to
“special deference.” Schomas, 732 F.3d
at 708. The court will reverse an ALJ's credibility
finding only if it is patently wrong. See Pepper v.
Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 367-68 (7th Cir. 2013).
must articulate, at least minimally, his analysis of all
relevant evidence, Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329,
333 (7th Cir. 1994), and “the [ALJ's] decision . .
. cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate
discussion of the issues, ” Lopez ex rel. Lopez v.
Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003).
Additionally, the ALJ must “build an accurate and
logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.”
Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir.
two of the analysis, the ALJ determines whether the claimant
has an impairment or combination of impairments that is
severe. Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th
Cir. 2010); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment
is severe if it “significantly limits [a
claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The step two
determination “is a threshold issue only.”
Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 591 (7th Cir.
2012.). If the ALJ fails to find one impairment severe, but
finds that another is severe and continues with the
sequential analysis, any step two error is harmless. See
id. (holding that any error in omitting a severe
impairment was harmless where the ALJ found two impairments
severe and continued with the remaining steps of the
evaluation process); Castile, 617 F.3d at 927. In
this case, any error at step two is harmless because the ALJ
found that Anderson's alcohol dependence and anxiety
disorder are severe, and because the ALJ evaluated the effect
of all Anderson's impairments on his RFC.
must determine an individual's RFC, meaning “what
an individual can still do despite his or her limitations,
” SSR 96-8p, based upon medical evidence as well as
“other evidence, such as testimony by the claimant or
his friends and family, ” Murphy v. Colvin,
759 F.3d 811, 817 (7th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted).
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(a) (in making a
disability determination, the ALJ must consider a
claimant's statements about his symptoms, such as pain,
and how his symptoms affect his daily life and ability to
work). An ALJ must evaluate both the evidence favoring the
claimant and the evidence favoring the claim's rejection
and may not ignore an entire line of evidence that is
contrary to his findings. Golembiewski v. Barnhart,
322 F.3d 912, 917 (7th Cir. 2003); Zurawski v.
Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 888 (7th Cir. 2001). Nevertheless,
an ALJ need not provide a written evaluation of every piece
of testimony and evidence. Golembiewski, 322 F.3d at
917. Instead, an ALJ need only minimally articulate his
justification for accepting or rejecting specific evidence of
disability. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 545 (7th
Cir. 2008); Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 371 (7th
is not required to give the treating opinion controlling
weight. The ALJ must, however, provide a sound explanation
for a decision to reject the treating physician's opinion
and to accept an alternate opinion. Jelinek v.
Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011); 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.927(c)(2). Moreover, even when an ALJ offers good
reasoning for refusing to give controlling weight to a
treating physician's opinion, he must still decide what
weight to give that opinion. Campbell v. Astrue, 627
F.3d 299, 308 (7th Cir. 2010). ALJs are required to rely on
expert opinions instead of determining the significance of
particular medical findings themselves. Moon v.
Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 722 (7th Cir. 2014); Rohan v.
Chater, 98 F.3d 966, 970 (7th Cir. 1996) (“ALJs
must not succumb to the temptation to play doctor and make
their own independent medical findings.”)
evaluating Anderson's blood disorder, the ALJ relied on
Anderson's reports regarding his response to treatment,
his “eventual denial of fatigue, ” and the
observations of Dr. Cuevas and Mary B. Snell, M.D., his
primary care physician. (Tr. 21.)
medical evidence establishes that Anderson was initially
diagnosed with polycythemia vera in January 2010 by
hematologist Lewis R. Domke, M.D., who recommended treatment
with weekly phlebotomies for four weeks. (Tr. 430-31.) Due to
conflicts - Anderson's genetic testing initially reported
as positive and then reported a day later as negative - Dr.
Domke withheld such treatment because he was uncertain about
Anderson's diagnosis. (Tr. 430.) However, he told
Anderson to stop smoking, that his blood pressure needed to
be controlled, and that future treatment might include
therapeutic phlebotomies but that would be “very
temporary.” (Tr. 429.)
May 2010, Anderson told Dr. Snell that he had not seen Dr.
Domke for a couple of months, he was “just tired,
” and he was going to trial on charges of driving while
intoxicated. (Tr. 405.) Dr. Snell noted a trace of edema
(swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in the body's
tissue) and that the polycythemia vera was lower since
Anderson had treatment phlebotomy. (Tr. at 405-07.) She also
documented fatigue, stating that it was multifactorial but
could be sleep apnea. (Tr. 407.)
February 2012, Anderson told Dr. Snell that in January he had
been released after thirteen and a half months in jail. (Tr.
399.) He had dyspnea (shortness of breath) on exertion if
carrying too much, and a trace of edema. (Tr. 400.) In April
2012, Dr. Snell ...