United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
STAR A. BROTT, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
DECISION AND ORDER REVERSING COMMISSIONER'S
William C. Griesbach, Chief Judge.
Star A. Brott filed this action for review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her
application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act.
Brott claims that the administrative law judge (ALJ), whose
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, erred
in assessing the weight to be accorded to the opinions of
Brott's treating psychiatrists, Drs. Fischer and Burney.
For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision
will be reversed and remanded.
January 22, 2010, Brott, who was forty-seven years old at the
time, filed an application for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning
December 1, 2003, due to bipolar disorder, anxiety,
depression, strokes, and stomach problems. R. 167, 338, 343.
Brott's date last insured (DLI) was March 31, 2008. R.
322, 1274. Brott's claims were denied initially, on
reconsideration, and by an ALJ. R. 169, 192, 199. The Appeals
Council remanded the case, and then an ALJ again found that
Brott was not disabled. R. 17, 187. The Appeals Council
denied Brott's request for review, and she appealed to
this court. R. 1, 1360-63. On May 19, 2016, this court
remanded the case for further administrative proceedings upon
joint motion of the parties. R. 1365-73. ALJ William
Shenkenberg conducted a hearing on December 1, 2016. R.
1271-1339. Brott, who was represented by counsel, her
husband, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. R.
time of the December 1, 2016 hearing, Brott was fifty-three
years old and lived in a house with her husband, two
daughters, and four grandchildren. R. 1278-79. At the
hearing, Brott testified that she had a high school education
and that she received special education services throughout
her schooling due to her severe learning disabilities. R.
1284-86. When asked about her medical conditions during the
2003-2008 period, Brott testified that she had bipolar
disorder, panic attacks, seizures, PTSD, paranoia,
depression, migraines, a shoulder spur, and a stroke. R.
1289-97. She testified that her panic attacks, depression,
and “mental health in general” had worsened since
2008. R. 1290-92. Regarding employment, Brott testified that,
prior to 2003, she worked as a bakery worker and certified
nursing assistant (CNA), but that she left her work as a CNA
after having a stroke, which limited her strength to a point
where she felt she could no longer perform the work. R.
1304-06. She further testified that, after 2003, she briefly
worked as a deli worker and telephone survey caller, but she
left both jobs, one due to anxiety, shortly after starting.
R. 1304-05, 1307-08. James Brott, Star Brott's husband,
testified that, during the 2003-2008 period, Star had
difficulty staying on task, that she suffered from anxiety
and memory decline, and that she was short-tempered due to
PTSD. R. 1313-15.
twenty-page written decision dated February 24, 2017, the ALJ
concluded that Brott was not disabled within the meaning of
the Social Security Act from her alleged onset date of
December 1, 2003, through March 31, 2008, her DLI. R.
1261-62. To reach this conclusion, the ALJ followed the
Social Security Administration's five-step sequential
evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ determined that
Brott had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from
December 1, 2003, through March 31, 2008. R. 1246. At step
two, the ALJ found that Brott had the following severe
impairments: bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety, borderline
personality disorder, asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease (COPD), status-post wrist surgeries, bilateral
shoulder degenerative joint disease, headaches, and obesity.
R. 1246. At step three, the ALJ determined that Brott did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled one of the impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 1248.
reviewing the record, the ALJ concluded that Brott had the
residual functional capacity (RFC) to
perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b),
subject to the following limitations: no climbing ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; occasional overhead reaching
bilaterally; frequent handling and fingering bilaterally;
avoid all exposure to irritants, such as fumes, odors, dust,
gases, and poorly-ventilated areas; able to understand,
remember, and carry out simple instructions and perform
simple, routine tasks; work in a low stress job with
occasional decisionmaking and occasional changes in the work
setting; work with no production rate or pace work; brief and
incidental interaction with the public; occasional
interaction with coworkers and no tandem tasks; occasional
interaction with supervisors; and able to maintain
concentration, persistence, and pace in two-hour increments,
consistent with normal breaks and lunch, and consistent with
R 1250. With these limitations, the ALJ found at step four
that, through her DLI, Brott was unable to perform her past
relevant work as a nurse assistant and baker helper. R. 1259.
At step five, however, the ALJ determined that there were
jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national
economy that Brott could have performed through her DLI, such
as inspector, routing clerk, and merchandise marker. R.
1259-60. After the ALJ's decision became final, R. 1241,
Brott 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 Social Security
Administration's (SSA) 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.
claims that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions of
her treating psychiatrists, Drs. Fischer and Burney. Under
the regulations in effect at the time of the ALJ's
decision, the ALJ must give a treating source's medical
opinion on the nature and severity of the claimant's
impairments “controlling weight” if the opinion
“is well-supported by the medically acceptable clinical
and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent
with the other substantial evidence in . . . [the]
record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); SSR 96-2p. If
an ALJ gives the treating source's medical opinion lesser
weight, he must articulate “good reasons” for
doing so. § 404.1527(c)(2). In such a case, “the
regulations require the ALJ to consider the length, nature,
and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of
examination, the ...