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Gomez v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

June 18, 2019

COCHERO L. GOMEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM E. DUFFIN, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff Cochero Gomez alleges that she has been disabled since October 6, 2010, due to morbid obesity, back pain, knee pain, asthma, thyroid disease, sensitive hands, and anxiety/depression. (Tr. 314.) In May 2014 she applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Tr. 220-32.) After her applications were denied initially (Tr. 95-122) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 123-148), a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 18, 2017 (Tr. 40-90). On August 17, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding Gomez was not disabled. (Tr. 15-29.)

         The Appeals Council denied Gomez's request for review on May 7, 2018. (Tr. 1-3.) This action followed. All parties have consented to the full jurisdiction of a magistrate judge (ECF Nos. 3, 7), and the matter is now ready for resolution.

         ALJ'S DECISION

         In determining whether a person is disabled an ALJ applies a multi-step sequential evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity. The ALJ found that Gomez “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 6, 2010, the alleged onset date[.]” (Tr. 17.)

         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 Gomez has the following severe impairments: “obesity, degenerative disc disease, asthma, and left ulnar neuropathy[.]” (Tr. 17.)

         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 twelve- month 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 Gomez “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments[.]” (Tr. 18.)

         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 her 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 Gomez has the RFC

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) as the ability to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand and or walk approximately six hours in an eight hour day and sit approximately six hours in an eight hour day, never climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally climbing ramps or stairs; occasional stooping, kneeling, crawling; occasional handling and fingering on the left; avoid concentrated exposure to environmental irritants such as fumes, dusts, odors, and gases.

(Tr. 21.)

         After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ at step four must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1526, 416.965. The ALJ concluded that Gomez “is capable of performing [her] past relevant work as a transfer specialist, retail supervisor, and teller.” (Tr. 27-28.) As such, the ALJ determined that she is not disabled. (Tr. 28-29.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 cannot affirm the ALJ's decision regardless of whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837; Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2012).

         ANALYSIS

         Gomez argues that the ALJ (1) improperly evaluated her credibility, (2) erred in evaluating and giving weight to the opinions of treating physician Tammy Durant, M.D., and state-agency psychologist Deborah Pape, Ph. D., and (3) failed to take into account her obesity in his RFC determination. (ECF No. 12.)

         I. Symptom Evaluation

         In making his RFC determination the ALJ must engage in a two-step process to evaluate a claimant's symptoms. First, the ALJ “must consider whether there is an underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's symptoms, such as pain.” SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 at *3; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.929. “Second, once an underlying physical or mental impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's symptoms is established, [the ALJ] evaluate[s] the intensity and persistence of those symptoms to determine the extent to which the symptoms limit an individual's ability to perform work-related activities ….” SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 at *3. The ALJ's evaluation of a claimant's symptoms is entitled to “special deference” and will not be overturned unless it is “patently wrong.” Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 528 (7th Cir. 2017) (citing Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 667-68 (7th Cir. 2008)).

         The ALJ found that Gomez's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce back pain that travels down her right leg, left finger numbness, gait abnormality, difficulty sleeping, difficulty leaving the house, and difficulty concentrating. (Tr. 22, 27.) However, the ALJ concluded that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record. (Tr. 27.) As a result, the ALJ did not find credible Gomez's testimony that her impairments are work preclusive.

         Gomez argues that “[t]he ALJ failed to set forth in a ‘meaningful, reviewable way' the specific medical or other evidence he considered to be inconsistent with [her] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms[.]” (ECF No. 12 at 16.) However, contrary to Gomez's argument, the ALJ discussed specific reasons for concluding that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms was inconsistent with the evidence in the record. See Curvin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 645, 651 (7th Cir. 2015) (“Here, the ALJ discussed various inconsistencies between [plaintiff's] alleged symptoms ...


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