United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER
William C. Griesbach, Chief Judge
an action for judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Debara
DeCamp's applications for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security
income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security
Act. She claims the decision is not supported by substantial
evidence and violates several of the Commissioner's own
rules and regulations. For the reasons set forth below, the
Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
April 6, 2011, Plaintiff, age 47 at the time, completed
applications for disability and DIB as well as SSI with her
alleged disability beginning February 20, 2009. She listed a
brain tumor, neck fusion, bipolar disorder, and a broken neck
as the conditions that limited her ability to work. R. 177.
At the time she submitted her applications, she was
5'8" and weighed 160 pounds. Id. Following
the denial of her applications initially and on
reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
administrative law judge (ALJ). ALJ Debra Meachum conducted a
hearing on December 17, 2012. Plaintiff, who was represented
by counsel, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. R. 44-74.
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff lived with a roommate,
her dog, and her bird in her two-story house. R. 48.
Plaintiff testified that she had completed high school and
began working as a server at a women's club. She left
that position for a bartending position. Her job duties
included opening the bar; getting ice out of the bins;
restocking shelves with beer, wine, and soda; cutting limes
and lemons; answering the phone; and taking orders. R. 49-50.
January 23, 2009, Plaintiff sustained an injury to her back
in a car accident in Oregon, where she was living at the
time. R. 668-69. She received chiropractic care over the next
several months, R. 253-64, but continued to complain of pain
and presented for an enhanced MRI in late April 2009. R.
244-47. The MRI showed mild degenerative disc disease and
grade 1 spondylolisthesis at ¶ 5-S1. The other discs in
the lumbar spine appeared normal. The physician also noted
mild narrowing of the L5 foramina which he thought might be
associated with minimal irritation of exiting L5 nerve roots.
the following year, Plaintiff got married, quit her job, and
moved to Wisconsin. She presented at Waukesha Memorial
Hospital on March 15, 2010, with a complaint of back pain. R.
269. On April 26, 2010, Plaintiff underwent a L5-S1 posterior
lumbar interbody fusion. R. 266. Her husband subsequently
passed way in 2010. R. 50.
asked how her physical impairments keep her from working,
Plaintiff responded the pain in her left leg and back surgery
make it hard to stand and walk. R. 51. Prior to her car
accident, Plaintiff said she had been involved in a work
accident that resulted in a neck injury. R. 55-56. She
reported she had rods and plates put in her neck. R. 55.
Plaintiff testified that she also has bad headaches, has a
small pineal tumor in her head, and has difficulty sleeping.
R. 51, 53. She further claimed she has pain in her hands and
reported having carpal tunnel surgery only in her right hand
due to insurance restraints. R. 51. Her hand pain causes her
to drop things. Plaintiff testified that on top of everything
else, she is bipolar, which leaves her feeling depressed and
agitated. R. 56.
then testified about her average day. She stated she wakes up
but does not shower every day. She testified that she spends
the day sitting on the couch or a chair, or walking around
the house. R. 57. She usually watches movies or reads
magazines and takes one nap lasting 45 minutes to an hour. R.
57, 59. Plaintiff testified she does not leave her house
because she is not a people person. She reported her roommate
does the household chores, including the laundry and cleaning
the bathroom. R. 57. Plaintiff claimed she cooks frozen
dishes and soup and puts her dishes in the sink. R. 58. She
testified she does not drive, not because her concentration
affects her ability to drive, but because she is in a lot of
pain and does not want to drive with a numb leg. Id.
Plaintiff asserted she could walk five to seven minutes at a
time, stand for five minutes, and sit for five to seven
minutes. R. 59-60. She testified she could lift and carry
about two pounds. R. 60.
written decision dated January 14, 2013, the ALJ concluded
Plaintiff was not disabled. R. 16-26. The Appeals Council
denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's
decision, making ALJ Meachum's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner. R. 6. Having exhausted her
administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed a complaint in June
2014 in the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Wisconsin, seeking judicial review of the
ALJ's decision. The matter was ultimately reversed and
remanded for further proceedings based upon a stipulation of
the parties. R. 832-44; see DeCamp v. Colvin,
2:14-cv-00646-RTR (E.D. Wis.).
Meachum held a second administrative hearing on remand on
June 24, 2015. Both Plaintiff, who was again represented by
counsel, and a VE testified. R. 780-806. At the time of the
second hearing, Plaintiff lived with her husband (she had
remarried) in a house in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. R. 785.
Plaintiff testified that the conditions that prevented her
from working include the chronic pain in her back that
radiates down her left leg and her migraines. R. 784. She
attributed her back pain to the 2009 motor vehicle accident.
R. 790. She stated the pain in her leg affects her ability to
walk and causes a limp. Id. She wears her back brace
every day. R. 793. Plaintiff testified that she can stand for
five minutes and sit for fifteen minutes. R. 792. As to her
migraines, Plaintiff indicated she gets a day-long migraine
four times a week. R. 786. Although the medication helps with
her headaches, she feels drowsy when she takes it. R. 786.
Plaintiff testified that she currently weighed 200 pounds. R.
784. She testified that her weight affects her ability to get
in and out of a chair and to walk. R. 789-90. Plaintiff also
claimed she has problems in her right hand and elbow. R. 792.
She stated she got injections in her elbow, though the
injections did not relieve the pain. R. 792, 795. She wears a
wrist brace on her right hand. R. 795. She also claimed that
she started having pain in her left hand. R. 793. With
respect to her mental impairments, Plaintiff testified that
she has bipolar depression. Id. She stated she gets
extremely cranky at times and loses her patience with people.
R. 794. Though she had a history of drug and alcohol abuse,
she testified she did not have a current problem. R. 796.
testified that she when she wakes up in the morning, she puts
ice on her back and takes her pain pills and anti-depressant
medications. Then she sits on the couch for the rest of the
day and watches television or reads magazines. R. 785. She
uses the computer to communicate with her family, who live in
Portland, Oregon. R. 788. If the weather is nice, she sits
outside, reads magazines, and takes a nap. Then she goes back
inside to take another nap. R. 785. She testified that she
lays down approximately four times a day. R. 789. Plaintiff
walks to the mailbox every day, which is about 30 yards from
the house, to get the mail. R. 786. She is able to get her
own coffee, make a sandwich, and shower on her own.
Id. She noted that her husband does the shopping and
cooking, and she hires a friend to help with the cleaning
once a week. R. 785. Although she participated in pool
therapy, she has not been able to attend her classes because
her husband works more hours and is unable to drive her to
the pool. R. 787. Plaintiff testified that she stopped
driving because it hurt her back. Id.
decision dated July 31, 2015, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not
disabled. R. 737-54. Following the agency's five-step
sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded at step one
that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements since
March 31, 2014 and has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since February 20, 2009. R. 740. At step two, the
ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
history of cervical discectomy in 2003; right carpal tunnel
release in 2004; L5-S1 lumbar fusion in 2010; chronic back
pain; longstanding neoplasm of the pineal gland; headaches;
history of substance abuse; and affective and anxiety
disorders. She also noted Plaintiff received treatment for
other impairments that do not meet the definition of severe,
including a non-malignant lesion on her right breast, right
elbow pain, a dog bite, a tick bite, and obesity. At step
three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's impairments or
combinations of impairments did not meet or medically equal
any listed impairments under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. Id.
reviewing the record, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, as
defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b),
with the following limitations: “She can only
occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and flex or extend
her neck. She is limited to unskilled work, SVP-2 or less,
with no fast-paced production line or tandem tasks and few if
any, changes in the work setting, meaning that the workplace
and tasks change no more than occasionally and only one to
two times per month, at most. She can only occasionally
interact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public. She may
be off task up to 10 percent of the workday, in addition to
normal breaks.” R. 744. With these limitations, the ALJ
found at step four that Plaintiff is unable to perform her
past work as a bartender and server. Nevertheless, at step
five, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff
can perform, such as machine tender, sorter, and office
helper. R. 753. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded
Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. The ALJ's decision became the final
decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review. Thereafter, Plaintiff
commenced this action for judicial review.
Commissioner's final decision will be upheld if the ALJ
applied the correct legal standards and supported his
decision with substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir.
2011). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869,
874 (7th Cir. 2010). Although a decision denying benefits
need not discuss every piece of evidence, remand is
appropriate when an ALJ fails to provide adequate support for
the conclusions drawn. Jelinek, 662 F.3d at 811. The
ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the
evidence and conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227
F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
is also expected to follow the SSA's rulings and
regulations in making a determination. Failure to do so,
unless the error is harmless, requires reversal.
Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 736-37 (7th
Cir. 2006). In reviewing the entire record, the court does
not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by
reconsidering facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts
in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Estok
v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998). Finally,
judicial review is limited to the rationales offered by the
ALJ. Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir.
2012) (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80,
93-95 (1943); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 307
(7th Cir. 2010)).
Evaluation of Alleged Symptoms
asserts the ALJ failed to apply the appropriate standard in
evaluating her symptoms. The Social Security regulations set
forth a two-step procedure for evaluating a claimants's
statements about the symptoms allegedly caused by her
impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1529. First,
the ALJ determines whether a medically determinable
impairment “could reasonably be expected to produce the
pain or other symptoms alleged.” Id. §
404.1529(a). If so, the ALJ then “evaluate[s] the
intensity and persistence” of the claimant's
symptoms and determines how they limit the claimant's
“capacity of work.” Id. §
404.1529(c)(1). In evaluating the intensity and persistence
of a claimant's symptoms, the ALJ looks to “all of
the available evidence, including your history, the signs and
laboratory findings, and statements from you, your treating
and nontreating source, or other persons about how your
symptoms affect you.” Id. The ...