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Hurley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

August 4, 2017

TAMMY R. HURLEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          PAMELA PEPPER United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Tammy Hurley applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) on October 4, 2012. Dkt. No. 14 at 1; Tr. 64. The Social Security Administration denied the claim on January 22, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on August 22, 2013. Dkt. No. 13-3 at 1; Tr. 13. On September 23, 2013, the plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) William Spalo held a video hearing on May 27, 2014. Id. On September 5, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, dkt. no 14; tr. 10-28, and the Appeals Council declined review on October 26, 2015. Id.; Tr. 1-7. On December 23, 2015, the plaintiff filed a social security complaint in federal court seeking review of the ALJ's second decision. Dkt. No. 1. The parties have fully briefed the appeal. The court remands the case for findings consistent with this decision.


         The Social Security Administration provides “disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income to persons who have a ‘disability.'” Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21 (2003). To qualify as “disabled, ” the claimant must demonstrate a physical or mental impairment or impairments “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. at 23 (quoting 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A)). The Social Security Act further “defines ‘disability' 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.'” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A)).

         In evaluating a claim for disability benefits, the ALJ follows a five-step, sequential process, considering: (1) work activity; (2) the medical severity of the plaintiff's impairments; (3) whether the medical severity meets or equals one of the Social Security listings; (4) the plaintiff's residual functional capacity and past relevant work; and (5) the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience to determine if the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a)(4). “The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, after which at step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 352 (7th Cir. 2005). If it appears at any step that the claimant is or is not disabled, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4).

         A plaintiff may seek judicial review of an ALJ's decision by operation of 42 U.S.C. §405(g). This statute provides for limited review. Id. The court reviews the ALJ's decision “to determine whether it reflects a logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusions sufficient to allow” the reviewing court “to assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford [the plaintiff] meaningful judicial review.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). The court will reverse only if the ALJ failed to support the decision with substantial evidence or committed legal error. Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009)). “A decision that lacks adequate discussion of the issues will be remanded.” Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121 (citation omitted).


         A. The ALJ's Decision

         Based on the five-step disability evaluation prescribed by the SSA's regulations, the ALJ issued a written decision reflecting the following findings. At step one, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of August 2, 2012. Dkt. No. 13-3 at 3; Tr. 15. At step two, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cardiomyopathy and left hip pain (unknown etiology). Id. The ALJ found that the plaintiff had been diagnosed and received treatment for these impairments, and that they caused more than a minimal effect on her ability to perform work activity. Id. The plaintiff's medically determinable mental impairments of depression and anxiety, the ALJ found, did not cause more than minimal limitation in her ability to perform basic mental work activities, and were, therefore, non-severe. Id. at 4; Tr. 16. At step three, the ALJ found that the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 5. Tr. 17.

         After determining the plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ moved to step four, and found that she was unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 9; Tr. 21.

         At step five, the ALJ found that, considering the plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, she was capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 10; Tr. 22. He also found that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §404.1567(d), except that she should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and could only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl or climb ramps and stairs. Id. at 18; Tr. 17.

         Based on these findings, the ALJ found that the claimant was not under a disability from August 2, 2012 through September 5, 2014, and was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Id. at 11; Tr. 23. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. Dkt. No 14; Tr. 1-7.[2]

         On appeal, the plaintiff raises four issues: (1) the ALJ's analysis of the plaintiff's treating physician's opinion was legally insufficient; (2) the ALJ's credibility assessment was legally insufficient; (3) the ALJ's RFC assessment was insufficient and not supported by substantial evidence; and (4) the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff could perform other work in the national economy was unsupported by substantial evidence because it was based on unreasonable and faulty vocational expert testimony. ...

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