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Godfrey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 14, 2019

MARY GODFREY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Mary Godfrey filed this action for judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Godfrey contends that the administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision is flawed and requires remand because the ALJ erred in his evaluation of medical opinions and the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment and hypothetical posed to the vocational expert (VE) did not adequately account for her concentration, persistence, and pace (CPP) limitations. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision will be reversed and remanded.


         In March of 2012, Godfrey filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits, alleging that her disability began on February 1, 2012. R. 20. Godfrey listed piriformis syndrome and chronic diarrhea as the conditions that limited her ability to work. R. 169. After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Godfrey had a hearing before an ALJ on March 12, 2014. In a decision issued on May 15, 2014, the ALJ found that Godfrey had several severe impairments, including morbid obesity with BMI above 60, an associated history of piriformis syndrome, and major depression, but was not disabled. Godfrey sought judicial review of the Commissioner's final order at that time, and on March 22, 2016, the court remanded the case to the Social Security Administration (SSA) based on the parties' stipulation to evaluate findings regarding Godfrey's cognitive impairment, obtain a consultative examination with cognitive testing as warranted, and obtain medical expert testimony as warranted. R. 423. On April 12, 2017, ALJ Jeffry Gauthier conducted a video hearing where Godfrey, who was represented by counsel, and a VE testified. R. 348-84.

         At the time of the hearing, Godfrey was 34 years old, was five feet four inches in height, and weighed 333 pounds. She was single and lived with her parents, both of whom are on disability, in Lakewood, Wisconsin. R. 352-54, 56. Godfrey has no income and has never been employed. R. 349, 354. Godfrey testified that she has a driver's license and receives medical coverage from the state. R. 355-56.

         Regarding her physical impairments, Godfrey testified that she has constant sharp pain in her lower back that also radiates down into her leg on a daily basis. R. 360, 370-71. As a result, Godfrey stated that on a good day she has difficulties staying seated for more than ten minutes and needs to get up and walk around but that she is unable to walk around for more than five minutes before she is uncomfortable again. R. 373-74. On bad days, which occur 4 to 5 times a week, Godfrey is unable to be comfortable while standing or sitting. R. 374. Godfrey testified that the prescription medicine she takes to help with pain and sleeping, Gabapentin, is ineffective, she occasionally uses heat pads for pain, weight loss does not improve her condition, and although she was referred to physical therapy she never attempted it because she did not think it would help her improve. R. 360-61, 364-65. Godfrey is able to lift a gallon of milk. R. 374.

         Godfrey also testified regarding her cognitive capabilities, reporting that she was not good at counting and remembering. R. 365. In response to questions from her attorney, Godfrey stated she can make change and do basic arithmetic. R. 373. Godfrey stated that without her back issues her cognitive impairment would not prevent her from being a dishwasher or working in a childcare setting. R. 365-66. Godfrey also stated that she does not like being around groups of people and is scared to go anywhere alone. R. 364.

         During a normal day, Godfrey testified that she usually sits and talks with her mother, occasionally watches tv, and spends a couple of hours each day reading mostly romance novels on her Kindle. R. 367-68, 370. Godfrey stated that she usually cannot read for more than twenty minutes before she becomes uncomfortable due to her back pain and has to get up to walk around. R. 369. Godfrey testified that she helps take care of the family dog, but is no longer able to help with chores around the house. R. 372.

         In a written decision dated October 3, 2017, the ALJ concluded Godfrey was not disabled. R. 327-39. Following the agency's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded that Godfrey had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date, March 16, 2012. R. 329. At step two, the ALJ found Godfrey had the following impairments: degenerative disc disease of lumbar spine, obesity, affective disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. R. 330. At step three, the ALJ determined Godfrey's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. At step four, the ALJ concluded Godfrey has the RFC to perform light work with additional limitations. R. 332. Relevant to the case at hand, the ALJ found the following limitations:

With regard to understanding, remembering and carrying out instructions, she can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks but not at a production rate pace (e.g. assembly line work). With regard to use of judgment in the workplace, she can make simple work related decisions. The claimant is capable of occasional interaction with the public and frequent interaction with supervisors and coworkers. She can tolerate occasional changes in a routine work setting. In addition to regularly scheduled breaks, she will be off task less than 10% of the time in a 8-hour workday.

Id. Godfrey has no past relevant work. R. 337. At step five, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Godfrey could have performed, such as small part assembler, electronics assembler, and laundry folder. R. 337-38. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded Godfrey was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act since the date her application was filed. R. 338. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Godfrey's request for review. Thereafter, Godfrey commenced this action for judicial review.


         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 conclusion 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).

         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. ...

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