United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER'S
WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, CHIEF JUDGE.
an action for judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff William
Nichols' application for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, the
Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.
December 5, 2014, Nichols, then age 62, filed an application
for disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging
disability beginning October 18, 2014. He listed a broken
back, Harrington rods in his back, right leg nerve damage,
right foot drop, extreme headaches, hypertension, and high
cholesterol as the conditions that limited his ability to
work. R. 98. The application was denied initially on April
14, 2015, and upon reconsideration on August 19, 2015.
Nichols then requested a hearing before an administrative law
judge (ALJ). ALJ Wayne L. Ritter conducted a hearing on
August 18, 2017. Nichols, who was represented by counsel, and
a vocational expert (VE) testified. R. 76-96.
1978, Nichols broke his back in a car accident after driving
his car into a ditch. As a result of the accident, Nichols
ended up with Harrington rods in his back. R. 79. Nichols
underwent his last back surgery in 1999. R. 81. Nichols took
medication for his back approximately once or twice a week.
About three years prior to the administrative hearing,
Nichols hit a deer with his car but did not suffer injuries
from that accident. R. 82. Nichols testified that he has
problems sitting and can stand for only a short period of
time. R. 84. He also reported that he stumbles and falls when
he walks as a result of the nerve damage in his right leg. R.
85. He testified that he cannot bend over on a regular basis
and that it takes him anywhere from ten to thirty minutes to
get dressed. R. 86, 90.
hearing, Nichols reported that he had worked at Jay's
Potato Chips and then as a bartender at a golf course. R. 80.
His duties at the golf course included managing the bar,
supervising two employees, and overseeing the pro shop. R.
86. Although Nichols testified that his employer terminated
him because the golf course was downsizing, he believed he
was terminated because he made mistakes due to his extreme
headaches and confusion. R. 80. He reported that he had a
constant headache for fifteen years that makes him confused
at times. R. 83-84. He indicated that he takes different
medications for the headaches and that the medications make
him light-headed. Id. He also noted that he has
difficulty remembering words and working with numbers, and
loses his train of thought. R. 89. Nichols testified that he
does not see a doctor on a regular basis for mental health
treatment and did not take medications for mental health. R.
87. The attorney who represented Nichols at the hearing
acknowledged that his client's case was a “straight
back case.” R. 80.
written decision dated September 6, 2017, the ALJ found
Nichols was not disabled. R. 61-71. Following the
Agency's sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded
at step one that Nichols met the insured status requirements
through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since October 18, 2014, the alleged onset
date. R. 63. At step two, the ALJ found Nichols had the
following severe impairments: disorders of the spine and
peripheral neuropathy. Id. He found Nichols'
hypertension, headaches, high cholesterol, clinical obesity,
and benign prostatic hypertrophy were nonsevere impairments.
Id. The ALJ also determined that Nichols'
medically determinable mental health impairment of an
adjustment disorder with depressed and anxious mood,
considered singly and in combination, was nonsevere because
it does not cause more than minimal limitation in
Nichols' ability to perform basic mental work activities.
R. 64. At step three, the ALJ concluded Nichols'
impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or
medically equal any listed impairments under 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 66.
reviewing the record, the ALJ determined Nichols has the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work, as
defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), “that allows
him to alternate between sitting and standing at will,
provided he is not off task greater than ten percent of the
workday, in a position involving no more than occasional
climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds; and
he must avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights,
hazards, or the use of dangerous moving machinery.”
Id. With these limitations, the ALJ found at step
four that Nichols is capable of performing his past relevant
work as a manager. R. 70. Based on these findings, the ALJ
concluded Nichols was not disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act. R. 71. The ALJ's decision became the
final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council
denied Nichols' request for review. Thereafter, Nichols
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 his conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227
F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
is also expected to follow the Social Security
Administration'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.
sole argument is that the ALJ erred by not properly assessing
his nonsevere mental impairment, adjustment disorder with
depressed and anxious mood, in the RFC and its impact on his
past relevant work. The RFC represents the most that a
claimant can do despite the physical or mental limitations
imposed by his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).
An ALJ must assess a claimant's RFC “based on all
the relevant evidence” in the case record, including
severe and nonsevere impairments as well as medical and
non-medical evidence. § 404.1545(e). The ALJ's
hypothetical question to the VE must then incorporate all of
the limitations identified in the RFC. Varga v.
Colvin, 794 F.3d 809, 813 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing
Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 857 (7th Cir. 2014);
O'Connor-Spinner v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 614, 619
(7th Cir. 2010)).
case, the ALJ determined Nichols has the RFC to perform light
work “that allows him to alternate between sitting and
standing at will, provided he is not off task greater than
ten percent of the workday, in a position involving no more
than occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or
scaffolds; and he must avoid concentrated exposure to
unprotected heights, hazards, or the use of dangerous moving
machinery.” R. 66. Nichols asserts that the ALJ should
have included limitations associated with his diagnosis of
adjustment disorder with anxious and depressed mood, which
the ALJ concluded was a nonsevere impairment, in his RFC. He
asserts that remand is required for a proper evaluation of