United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER
E. JONES United States Magistrate Judge
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
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
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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.
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)).
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).
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).
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. ...