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Peeters v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

May 28, 2019

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


          William E. Duffin, U.S. Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff Gerald Peeters alleges that he has been disabled since February 11, 2014, due to “Disorders of Back (Discogenic & Degenerative), Affective (Mood) Disorders, Lower Back Problems, and Depression.” (ECF No. 12 at 6.) In July 2013 he applied for disability insurance benefits. (See Tr. 21.) After his application was denied initially (Tr. 59-74) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 75-90), a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on November 11, 2015 (Tr. 39-58). On January 12, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding Peeters was not disabled. (Tr. 21-31.) The Appeals Council denied Peeters' request for review on May 5, 2016. (Tr. 7-10.)

         On June 15, 2016, Peeters filed an action in this court challenging the ALJ's January 2016 decision. (Tr. 564-65.) On March 7, 2017, the Honorable William C. Griesbach signed an order approving the parties' joint stipulation to remand for further administrative proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Tr. 534.) On remand, the Appeals Council instructed the ALJ to: (1) “[g]ive further consideration to [Peeters'] maximum residual functional capacity and provide appropriate rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of the assessed limitations;” (2) “[o]btain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on [Peeters'] occupational base;” (3) “ask the vocational expert to identify examples of appropriate jobs and to state the incidence of such jobs in the national economy;” (4) “identify and resolve any conflicts between the occupational evidence provided by the vocational expert and information in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and its companion publication, the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (Social Security Ruling 00-4p);” (5) “offer [Peeters] the opportunity for a new hearing;” (6) “take any further action needed to complete the administrative record;” and (7) “issue a new decision.” (Tr. 542.)

         A second hearing was held before the same ALJ on January 9, 2018. (Tr. 461-503.) On March 14, 2018, the ALJ issued a written decision, again concluding that Peeters was not disabled[1] (Tr. 434-48), which became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.984 (“[W]hen a case is remanded by a Federal court for further consideration, the decision of the administrative law judge will become the final decision of the Commissioner after remand on your case unless the Appeals Council assumes jurisdiction of the case.”). This action followed. All parties have consented to the full jurisdiction of a magistrate judge (ECF Nos. 6, 7), and the matter is now ready for resolution.


         In determining whether a person is disabled an ALJ applies a five-step sequential evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity. The ALJ found that Peeters “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 11, 2014, the amended alleged onset date.” (Tr. 437.)

         The analysis then proceeds to the second step, which is a consideration of whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is “severe.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). “In order for an impairment to be considered severe at this step of the process, the impairment must significantly limit an individual's ability to perform basic work activities.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014.) The ALJ concluded that Peeters has the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and learning disabilities.” (Tr. 437.)

         At step three the ALJ is to determine whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 4, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.1526, 416.920(d) and 416.926) (called “The Listings”). If the impairment or impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing and also meets the twelvemonth duration requirement, 20 C.F.R. § 416.909, the claimant is disabled. If the claimant's impairment or impairments is not of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria set forth in a listing, the analysis proceeds to the next step. The ALJ found that Peeters “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.” (Tr. 437.)

         In between steps three and four the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which is the claimant's ability to perform both physical and mental work-related activities on a regular and continuing basis despite his impairments. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. In making the RFC finding, the ALJ must consider all of the claimant's impairments, including impairments that are not severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929; SSR 96-4p. In other words, the RFC determination is a “function by function” assessment of the claimant's maximum work capability. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 412 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ concluded that Peeters has the RFC

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except [Peeters] is limited to occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, or stairs; [he] is limited to occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, or crawling and occasional overhead reaching with the right upper extremity; [he] is limited to unskilled work performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; he is limited to occasional decision making and occasional changes in work setting; he is limited to occasional interaction with the public and coworkers; and he is limited to work that allows individually performed work tasks and no fast-paced production work (end of day quotas are permitted).

(Tr. 438-39.)

         After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ at step four must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1526, 416.965. Peeters' past relevant work was as a construction worker and grounds keeper. (Tr. 446.) The ALJ concluded that he “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” (Id.)

         The last step of the sequential evaluation process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering his RFC, age, education, and work experience. At this step the ALJ concluded that, considering Peeters' age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Peeters can perform. (Tr. 447.) In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ relied on testimony from a vocational expert, who testified that a hypothetical individual of Peeters' age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform the requirements of food preparation, mail clerk, laundry worker, and hand packager. (Id.) After finding that Peeters could perform work in the national economy, the ALJ concluded that he is not disabled. (Tr. 447-48.)


         The court's role in reviewing an ALJ's decision is limited. It does not look at the evidence anew and make an independent determination as to whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1120. Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1120-21 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Thus, it is possible that opposing conclusions both can be supported by substantial evidence. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004).

         It is not the court's role to reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. Rather, the court must determine whether the ALJ complied with his obligation to build an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and his conclusion that is sufficient to enable a court to review the administrative findings. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014); Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). “This deference is lessened, however, whether the ALJ's findings rest on an error of fact or logic.” Thomas, 745 F.3d at 806. If the ALJ committed a material error of law the court ...

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