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Strasser v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

June 24, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This is an action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Toby Strasser's applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as well as for supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. For the reasons stated herein, the Commissioner's decision will be reversed and remanded.


         On October 15, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as well as for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning April 23, 2014. She listed stroke-cerebral infarction, bilateral involvement; antiphosolipid antibody syndrome; major depression disorder, recurrent episode, moderate; hemiparesis; anxiety; ADHD; left knee meniscus tear with bone spurs; CVA, cerebral infarction; GAF of 57; and anticoagulation per hematology as the conditions that limited her ability to work. R. 84. After the applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). ALJ John Martin conducted a hearing on May 5, 2017. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. R. 31-78.

         At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 40 years old and lived with her ten-year-old daughter. R. 41. She had an eleventh grade education and had worked as a short order cook, a CNA, a cashier, and a day care center worker. R. 45, 48-50. Plaintiff testified that she is unable to work because she feels uncomfortable around people; her swollen knee prevents her from standing; and she has pain in her head, chest, and knees. R. 51. She also reported that she has had ongoing issues with headaches since her April 2014 stroke. R. 58. Plaintiff testified that she gets fifteen headaches a month. When she gets a headache, Plaintiff indicated that she lays still in her dark bedroom, and there cannot be any noise or light. She cannot move because she gets nauseous. Ordinarily, the headaches last for three to four days, but if she can get lay down immediately, it will only last for one day. R. 59.

         As to her typical day, Plaintiff testified that she wakes up at 6:30 a.m. to get her daughter to school. When her daughter leaves for school, Plaintiff lays down and takes her medication. Then she cooks dinner and goes to bed between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. R. 63. Although she does the dishes, she is required to take breaks. R. 64. She does laundry but cannot do yard work. R. 64. Plaintiff testified that she needs assistance grocery shopping and must take a break from walking after five minutes because she has difficulty breathing. R. 41, 44. Although Plaintiff smokes three cigarettes a day, she is at the “last leg of quitting.” R. 56.

         In a 12-page decision dated July 7, 2017, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled. R. 15-26. Following the Agency's sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded at step one that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through March 31, 2015, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 23, 2014, the alleged onset date. R. 17. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: anti-phospholipid syndrome, status post cerebrovascular accident, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, degenerative joint disease, and status post left anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. R. 17-18. He also found that Plaintiff's affective disorder and anxiety disorder were non-severe impairments. R. 18. At step three, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 20.

         The ALJ then determined Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with the following limitations:

She could lift/carry up to 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently. The claimant could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and climb ramps and stairs. She could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding. The claimant could not work at unprotected heights or around moving mechanical parts. The claimant could not operate a [motor] vehicle as part of her work duties. The claimant cannot tolerate concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dust, odors, and fumes. The claimant must avoid more than concentrated exposure to extreme heat.

R. 21. With these limitations, the ALJ found at step four that, although Plaintiff cannot perform any past relevant work as a cook, cashier II, certified nursing assistant, day care center worker, or fast food cashier, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as a production worker/final assembler, a general office clerk, and an inspector/sorter. R. 24-25. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. R. 26. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Thereafter, Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review.


         The final decision of the Commissioner will be upheld if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported her 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 conclusion 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 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 ...

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