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Donnick v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

April 23, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Stacie Donnick seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision will be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), sentence four.


         Donnick filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on September 17, 2014. (Tr. 13.) She filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on August 21, 2014. (Id.) Donnick alleges disability beginning on July 23, 2013 due to multiple physical and mental conditions, the relevant ones here being chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) and breathing issues. (Tr. 310.) Donnick's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 13.) Donnick filed a request for a hearing and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on June 29, 2017. (Id.) Donnick testified at the hearing, as did Susan A. Entenberg, a vocational expert.

         In a written decision issued September 22, 2017, the ALJ found that Donnick had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, emphysema, degenerative disc and joint disease, gastroerosive disease, and affective, anxiety, and personality disorders. (Tr. 16.) The ALJ further found that Donnick did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (the “listings”). (Tr. 17-18.) The ALJ found Donnick had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, with the following limitations: frequently, but not constantly, reach overhead and in other directions; handle and feel objects frequently, but not constantly; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally work around unprotected heights or moving machinery; limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks which would not involve work at a production rate pace; limited to simple work related decisions; occasionally respond appropriately to co-workers and the general public; requires a cane for ambulation; and would likely be off-task, but not more than ten percent of the time in any eight-hour workday. (Tr. 18.)

         While the ALJ found that Donnick was unable to perform any past relevant work, he also found that given Donnick's age, education, work experience, and RFC, other jobs that she could perform existed in significant No. in the national economy. (Tr. 21-22.) As such, the ALJ found that Donnick was not disabled from her alleged onset date until the date of the decision. (Tr. 22.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-5.)


         1. Applicable Legal Standards

         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 not conclusive evidence; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation and citation omitted). 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 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. 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)).

         2. Application to this Case

         Donnick raises a single claim of error in the ALJ's decision: the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of Donnick's treating pulmonologist, Dr. Stephen Wilson. An ALJ must consider all medical opinions in the record, but the method of evaluation varies depending on the source. Generally, more weight is given to the medical opinions of treating sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).[1] If the opinion of a treating source is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, the opinion is given “controlling weight.” Id. Even if the ALJ finds that the opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, he may not simply reject it. Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-2p. Rather, if the ALJ finds that a treating source opinion does not meet the standard for controlling weight, he must evaluate the opinion's weight by considering a variety of factors, including the length, nature and extent of the claimant and physician's treatment relationship; the degree to which the opinion is supported by the evidence; the opinion's consistency with the record as a whole; and whether the doctor is a specialist. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).

         The ALJ must always give good reasons for the weight given to a treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); SSR 96-2p. The ALJ must give reasons “sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.” SSR 96-2p. An ALJ can reject a treating physician's opinion only for reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003).

         Again, the ALJ found Donnick had the severe impairment of emphysema. Donnick primarily treated with Dr. Wilson, a pulmonologist, for her pulmonary impairments. In November 2014, Donnick presented to her treating nurse practitioner, Amy Puls, for shortness of breath and smoking cessation. (Tr. 849.) Upon physical examination, Puls noted that while Donnick's lungs had “[e]asy respiratory effort” and were “[c]lear to auscultation bilaterally without wheezes[, ] rales[, ] or rhonchi, ” “[f]orced expiration induc[ed] intense coughing which [was] unproductive.” (Tr. 851.) Puls referred Donnick to pulmonary medicine for evaluation. (Tr. 852.) On January 19, 2015, Donnick treated with Dr. Wilson for the first time. (Tr. 857.) Dr. Wilson noted that Donnick experienced shortness of breath for many years and utilized Symbicort and albuterol. (Id.) Donnick stated that she experienced shortness of breath even while walking on level ground and that her breathing was gradually getting worse. (Id.) She told Dr. Wilson that she coughs and produces phlegm daily. (Id.) Dr. Wilson observed Donnick occasionally coughing in the office, but the cough was unproductive. (Tr. 858.) Upon physical ...

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