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Gulley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

February 19, 2019

SASHA T. GULLEY, Plaintiff,



         1. Facts and Procedural History

          Sasha Gulley alleges she became disabled on January 16, 2012, when she slipped and fell on ice, exacerbating her prior back problems. She seeks disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits due to low back and neck pain, as well as fibromyalgia.

         The ALJ found Gulley suffers from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, fibromyalgia, and obesity. (Tr. 17.) She has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (Tr. 17.) Her impairments do not meet or medically equal a listing. (Tr. 18-19.) Rather, she had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with additional limitations, including only occasional lifting, pushing, or pulling of up to ten pounds, sitting for up to six hours of an eight-hour workday, standing or walking for up to two hours of a workday. (Tr. 19.)

         These limitations precluded her past relevant work but, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded Gulley could work as a “Document Preparer Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) Code#: 249.587-018 / Sedentary /Unskilled/ SVP 2 / 98, 000 jobs nationally; Assembler- DOT Code#: 713.687-018 / Sedentary /Unskilled/ SVP 2 / 7, 300 jobs nationally; and Check Weigher - DOT Code#: 737.687-026 / Sedentary/ Unskilled/ SVP 2 I 13, 000 jobs nationally.” (Tr. 27.)

         2. Standard of Review

          The court's role in reviewing an ALJ's decision is limited. It does not look at the evidence anew and make an independent determination as to whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120 (7th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1120-21 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Thus, it is possible that opposing conclusions both can be supported by substantial evidence. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004).

         It is not the court's role to reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. Rather, the court must determine whether the ALJ complied with his obligation to build an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and his conclusion that is sufficient to enable a court to review the administrative findings. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014); Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). If the ALJ committed a material error of law, the court cannot affirm his decision regardless of whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837; Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2012).

         3. Analysis

         3.1. Opinion Evidence

         Gulley challenges the ALJ's assessment of the opinions of Jim Donaldson, an athletic trainer who assessed Gulley as part of her worker's compensation claim, and Dr. Arvind Ahuja, a neurologist who treated Gulley.

         The ALJ discussed certain of Dr. Ahuja's opinions (Tr. 331, 333, 343, 349, 357-58) and discounted each because “it is not expressed in precise functional terms supported with citation to medical evidence, and as such, its probative value is limited. Further, this opinion is conclusory, poorly explained, and consists only of circled items on a checklist.” (Tr. 25.) The ALJ also noted that these opinions intrude on issues reserved to the Commissioner. (Tr. 25.) With respect to a November 6, 2012 opinion (Tr. 357-58), the ALJ noted, “generally speaking, some physical examinations of record revealed such little symptomatology, that outright inability to perform most postural activities is not warranted.” (Tr. 25.)

         Although Gulley challenges the ALJ's assessment on various fronts, the court finds it sufficient to note the ALJ's selective reliance on the record. The ALJ failed to discuss any of Dr. Ahuja's opinions in which he stated Gulley was limited to working only four hours per day. (Tr. 348, Nov. 1, 2012; Tr. 371, March 21, 2013; Tr. 368, Oct. 10, 2013; Tr. 424, Feb. 13, 2014; Tr. 423, May 23, 2014.) Beginning in March of 2013, Dr. Ahuja characterized this limitation as permanent.

         This opinion was consistent with Donaldson's opinion, which the ALJ discounted in large part because it was “not supported by the bulk of the medical record.” (Tr. 24.) Like Dr. Ahuja, Donaldson opined that Gulley could work only three to four hours a day. (Tr. 360.) However, Dr. Ahuja's un-referenced opinions were consistent with Donaldson's opinions. And, specifically with respect to sitting, Dr. Ahuja opined Gulley was limited to “occasional” sitting. (Tr. 348, 423.) Thus, the court ...

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