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Mitchell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 12, 2018

CHRISTINE MITCHELL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID E. JONES United States Magistrate Judge

         Christine Mitchell alleges disability based primarily on low-back pain. After the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied her application at the administrative level, Ms. Mitchell sought judicial review in federal court, and the parties subsequently agreed to remand the matter to the Commissioner of the SSA for further proceedings. On remand, Ms. Mitchell received another hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ again determined that Ms. Mitchell was capable of performing her past relevant work notwithstanding her impairments. Ms. Mitchell now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         Ms. Mitchell argues that the ALJ committed errors in assessing her subjective complaints, the side effects from her various medications, and the opinions of the physician assistant who treated her. She seeks an award of benefits or, alternatively, a remand for further proceedings. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ did not commit an error of law in reaching his decision and that the decision is otherwise supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees with the Commissioner and therefore will affirm her decision denying Ms. Mitchell disability benefits.

         I. Background

         Christine Lee Mitchell was born on July 10, 1952. Transcript 460, ECF Nos. 9-2-9-17. She and her husband own a home in Greendale, Wisconsin, and they have two adult-aged children and several grandchildren. Tr. 461, 485-87. Ms. Mitchell suffers from chronic low-back pain stemming from degenerative disc and joint disease in her lumbar spine. Tr. 469-70. The pain also radiates down both of her legs. Tr. 475. Ms. Mitchell has treated her pain with a number of medications, radiofrequency ablations, a TENS unit, physical therapy, and facet injections. Tr. 471-79. However, she has never undergone back surgery.

         For more than twenty years, Ms. Mitchell worked as a bookkeeper, customer service clerk, and office manager at a company that sold commercial office products. Tr. 464-65. Her job duties included answering phones, helping customers with orders, entering data in computer programs, taking care of complaints from other employees, training employees, and handling performance appraisals. Tr. 466-68. After leaving that position, she worked as an office manager and customer service clerk for two other companies. Tr. 468-70. Ms. Mitchell last worked in 2008. Tr. 492. She believes she was fired from that job due to limitations resulting from her impairments: she made too many errors, had to get up and walk around quite often, and worked at a slower pace than her colleagues.

         Ms. Mitchell applied for disability insurance benefits in Fall 2010, alleging that she became disabled on August 28, 2010. Tr. 168-74. After the SSA denied her application initially, Tr. 70, and upon reconsideration, Tr. 71, Ms. Mitchell requested a hearing before an ALJ, Tr. 109-10. The administrative hearing was held on July 13, 2012, before ALJ Patrick H. Morrison. Tr. 30-69. On August 10, 2012, ALJ Morrison issued a decision finding that Ms. Mitchell was not disabled. Tr. 72-86. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Mitchell's request for review on October 16, 2013, Tr. 515-21, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, see Loveless v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 502, 506 (7th Cir. 2016). Ms. Mitchell then sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On October 7, 2014, United States District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller issued an order granting the parties' joint motion for remand to the Commissioner pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g). Tr. 525.

         Thereafter, the Appeals Council vacated the previous decision and remanded the matter to ALJ Morrison, noting that his decision did not adequately evaluate Ms. Mitchell's credibility in accordance with Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-7p. Tr. 526-28. The Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to fully consider all of the evidence relating to Ms. Mitchell's back impairment and further evaluate Ms. Mitchell's subjective complaints, paying particular attention to her medication side effects and course of treatment.

         The ALJ conducted a second administrative hearing on August 27, 2015. See Tr. 455-514. Ms. Mitchell was represented by counsel at the hearing. See Tr. 24-27, 455. The ALJ heard testimony from Ms. Mitchell and Spencer Mosley, L.P.C., an impartial vocational expert. See Tr. 460-513; see also 646-47. Ms. Mitchell testified that her impairments caused difficulty sleeping, walking, standing, and sitting. Tr. 487-89. She further testified that she experienced significant side effects from her medications, including drowsiness, a short attention span, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating. Tr. 471-75, 492-99. As a result of her pain, Ms. Mitchell spent about five to six hours each day reclining in a chair and elevating her legs. Tr. 494-95.

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process and on September 25, 2015, he issued another decision unfavorable to Ms. Mitchell. Tr. 535-50. The ALJ determined that (1) Ms. Mitchell did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date through her date last insured; (2) Ms. Mitchell suffered from one “severe” impairment: degenerative disc and joint disease of the lumbosacral spine; (3) Ms. Mitchell did not suffer from an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a presumptively disabling impairment; Ms. Mitchell had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with certain physical restrictions; and (4) Ms. Mitchell was capable of performing her past relevant work as a customer service clerk, officer manager, and bookkeeper. See Tr. 538-45. Based on those findings, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Mitchell was not disabled. Ms. Mitchell filed exceptions to the ALJ's decision, Tr. 619-23, but the Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction of her appeal, Tr. 399-402.

         Ms. Mitchell filed this action on April 11, 2017, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's latest decision under § 405(g). See Complaint, ECF No. 1. The matter was reassigned to this Court after the parties consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction. See Consent to Proceed Before a Magistrate Judge, ECF Nos. 3, 4. It is now fully briefed and ready for disposition. See Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Reversal of Social Security's Denial of Christine Mitchell's Claim for Disability Insurance Benefits, ECF No. 11; Defendant's Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision; ECF No. 15; Plaintiff's Reply Brief in Support of Reversal of Social Security's Denial of Christine Mitchell's Claim for Disability Insurance Benefits, ECF No. 16.

         II. Standard of Review

         “Judicial review of Administration decisions under the Social Security Act is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).” Allord v. Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 415 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010)). Pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g), federal courts have the power to affirm, reverse, or modify the Commissioner's decision, with or without remanding the matter for a rehearing.

         Section 205(g) of the Act limits the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See § 405(g). As such, the Commissioner's findings of fact shall be conclusive if they are supported by “substantial evidence.” See § 405(g). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)) (other citations omitted). The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, “even if an alternative position is also supported by substantial evidence.” Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Arkansas v. Oklahoma, 503 U.S. 91, 113 (1992)).

         In reviewing the record, courts “may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute [their] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003)). Rather, reviewing courts must determine whether the ALJ built an “accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result to afford the claimant meaningful judicial review of the administrative findings.” Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Blakes v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir. 2003); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001)). The ALJ's decision must be reversed “[i]f the evidence does not support the conclusion.” Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837 (citing Blakes, 331 F.3d at 569). Likewise, reviewing courts must remand “[a] decision that lacks adequate discussion of the issues.” Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121 (citations omitted).

         Reversal also is warranted “if the ALJ committed an error of law or if the ALJ based the decision on serious factual mistakes or omissions, ” regardless of whether the decision is otherwise supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837 (citations omitted). An ALJ commits an error of law if his decision “fails to comply with the Commissioner's regulations and rulings.” Brown v. Barnhart, 298 F.Supp.2d 773, 779 (E.D. Wis. 2004) (citing Prince v. Sullivan, 933 F.2d 598, 602 (7th Cir. 1991)). Reversal is not required, however, if the error is harmless. See, e.g., Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767, 773 (7th Cir. 2012); see also Keys v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 990, 994-95 (7th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. Mitchell maintains that she is disabled and that the Commissioner's decision to the contrary is not supported by substantial evidence and is contrary to law and regulation. See Compl. ¶¶ 6-7. She asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and award benefits. See Compl. p. 2. ...


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