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Brott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 29, 2019

STAR A. BROTT, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          William C. Griesbach, Chief Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.


         On 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. 1278-1328.

         At the 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.

         In a 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.

         After 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 unskilled work.

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.


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

         The ALJ 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. 2010)).


         Brott 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 ...

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