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Laabs v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 26, 2018

KATHY S. LAABS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Kathy S. Laabs' applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in assessing her credibility, weighing the medical opinions, and determining her RFC. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.


         On September 26, 2012, Plaintiff, then age 53, filed an application for DIB and SSI with an alleged onset date of June 8, 2012, due to cervical degenerative disc disease, neuropathy, and sleep apnea. R. 196, 199, 237. The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied the applications initially on January 9, 2013, and upon reconsideration on July 16, 2013. R. 134, 143. After her application and request for reconsideration were denied, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. ALJ John Kraybill held a hearing on January 29, 2015. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, a medical expert, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. R. 62-87.

         At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 4'10" and weighed 181 pounds. R. 68. She lived by herself in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and received medical care through the local Veterans Administration Medical Center. R. 66, 68. Plaintiff testified that the physical problems that prevented her from working included numbness in three-quarters of her face, both arms, and her feet. She described the numbness in her feet as constantly walking barefoot on shards of glass. R. 69. She said that the numbness extended from her shoulders down to her fingertips, as well as from both knees down her legs. R. 73. She also said that she had also developed issues with the control and touch of her hands, specifically that she was struggling with dexterity, including holding a pencil and sewing. R. 73. She testified that the pain would prevent her from even writing a letter and that only laying down gave her relief. R. 74. The only medication she was taking at the time was Meloxicam from which she experienced no side effects, though she had tried other medications in the past. R. 67.

         Plaintiff testified that she had previously held jobs as a telemarketer, personal assistant, general laborer, escrow officer, and bus driver. R. 238. She said she had most recently worked as a bus driver, but that she no longer does because of the numbness she experiences in her face, both arms, and feet. R. 67-68. She also testified that she lived in a single family home, which had stairs that she takes her time to climb. R. 69. Plaintiff testified that she does her own cooking, cleaning, and laundry, but that these chores are spread out so she can pace herself. R. 78. She said she did no yard work and tried to avoid driving because of the numbness in her feet. R. 69.

         Dr. Gilberto Munoz, a medical expert, also testified. Dr. Munoz testified that he had reviewed Plaintiff's entire file and concluded that she had chronic neck pain secondary to multiple cervical spine ablation. The MRI showed no nerve root compression. Dr. Munoz also testified that Plaintiff had severe obstructive sleep apnea for which she required a CPAP machine. Dr. Munoz thought Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, but that it did restrict her to the full range of sedentary work. R. 79-80.

         In a decision dated March 10, 2015, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. R. 20-26. Following the Agency's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded at step one that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 8, 2012, the alleged onset date. R. 22. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's neck pain was a severe impairment. R. 22. He determined Plaintiff's obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, and reported history of affective disorder were nonsevere because there was no evidence that Plaintiff experienced any symptoms related to any of these disorders. R. 22. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's neck impairment did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         The ALJ ultimately determined Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). R. 23. With this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a telemarketer and an escrow officer. R. 25. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Because the ALJ made this determination at step four, he did not continue onto step five. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 10, 2015. R. 1.


         The 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 his conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).

         The ALJ 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)).


         Plaintiff asserts four arguments on appeal. First, she argues that the ALJ erred in assessing the weight given to the various medical source opinions. Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in assessing the credibility of her statements about the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms. Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ's RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence and is contrary to ...

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