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Williams v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

August 23, 2019

ALONZO WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL[1], Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          William E. Duffin U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff Alonzo Williams alleges that he has been disabled since September 1, 2014 (Tr. 13) and is unable to work because of “pain in the legs, pain in the right arm, a back disorder, carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral trigger thumbs, and depression” (Tr. 19 (internal citations omitted)). In February 2015 he applied for disability insurance benefits (Tr. 235-38) and supplemental security income benefits (Tr. 239-44). After his application was denied initially (Tr. 70-115) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 116-47), a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on July 27, 2017 (Tr. 35-66). On December 21, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding Williams was not disabled. (Tr. 13-27.) The Appeals Council denied Williams's request for review on August 13, 2018. (Tr. 1-3.) This action followed. All parties have consented to the full jurisdiction of a magistrate judge (ECF Nos. 4, 7), and this matter is now ready for resolution.

         ALJ'S DECISION

         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 Williams “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2014, the alleged onset date[.]” (Tr. 15.)

         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). An impairment is severe if it significantly limits a claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522(a). The ALJ concluded that Williams has the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral thumb flexor tenosynovitis, and depression[.]” (Tr. 15.)

         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 Williams “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments[.]” (Tr. 16.)

         In between steps three and four the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), “which is [the claimant's] ‘ability to do physical and mental work activities on a regular basis despite limitations from her impairments.'” Ghiselli v. Colvin, 837 F.3d 771, 774 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014)). 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 Williams has the RFC

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except he can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; he is limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, occasional balancing, occasional stooping, occasional crouching, occasional kneeling and occasional crawling; he can perform no more than frequent bilateral handling and fingering of objects; he must be able to use a handheld assistive device (a cane); he can have no exposure to unprotected heights or moving machinery; and he is limited to understanding, carrying out and remembering no more than simple instructions.

(Tr. 18.)

         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. Williams's past relevant work was as a fast food worker, fast food services manager, and bindery worker. (Tr. 25.) The ALJ concluded that Williams “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, “[c]onsidering [Williams's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC], there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [he] can perform[.]” (Tr. 26.) In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ relied on testimony from a vocational expert (VE), who testified that a hypothetical individual of Williams's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform the requirements of occupations such an order clerk, office helper, and inspector. (Id.) After finding Williams could perform work in the national economy, the ALJ concluded that he was not disabled. (Tr. 27.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court's role in reviewing an ALJ's decision is limited. It must “uphold an ALJ's final decision if the correct legal standards were applied and supported with substantial evidence.” L.D.R. by Wagner v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 1146, 1152 (7th Cir. 2019) (citing 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 might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 526 (7th Cir. 2017) (quoting Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010)). “The court is not to ‘reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.'” Burmester v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 507, 510 (7th Cir. 2019) (quoting Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003)). “Where substantial evidence supports the ALJ's disability determination, [the court] must affirm the [ALJ's] decision even if ‘reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [the claimant] is disabled.'” L.D.R. by Wagner, 920 F.3d at 1152 (quoting Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d at 413).

         ANALYSIS

         Williams argues that the ALJ erred (1) in giving little weight to the opinions of treating physicians William Gerard, D.O., and Nosheen Hasan, M.D.; (2) in evaluating his statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms; and (3) by failing to address in the RFC assessment all of Williams's limitations, including his need for a walker and his need to move after sitting for an extended period of time. (ECF No. 13 at 7.)

         I. Medical Opinion Evidence

         “For claims filed before March 2017, a treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of a medical condition is entitled to controlling weight if it is well-supported by medical findings and consistent with substantial evidence in the record.” Johnson v. Berryhill, 745 Fed.Appx. 247, 250 (7th Cir. 2018) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Brown v. Colvin, 845 F.3d 247, 252 (7th Cir. 2016)). “If an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the regulations require the ALJ to consider the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of examination, the physician's specialty, the types of tests performed, and the consistency and supportability of the physician's opinion” to determine how much weight to give the opinion. Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). While “[a]n ALJ must offer good reasons for discounting a treating physician's opinion, ” Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotations and citation omitted), courts will uphold “all but the most patently erroneous reasons for discounting a treating physician's assessment.” Stepp v. Colvin, 795 F.3d 711, 718 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Luster v. Astrue, 358 Fed.Appx. 738, 740 (7th Cir. 2010)).

         A. Primary Care Doctor-Dr. William Gerard

         Williams argues that the ALJ erred in giving “little weight” to his primary care doctor, Dr. William Gerard. (ECF No. 13 at 8-15.) In September 2015 Dr. Gerard opined that Williams would be able to perform full-time work on a sustained basis fifty percent of a typical workday; could continuously sit for one hour and continuously stand for thirty minutes at one time; could sit for at least six hours and stand/walk for less than two hours in an eight-hour workday; could frequently lift and carry less than ten pounds, occasionally lift and carry ten pounds, occasionally lift and carry twenty pounds, and rarely lift and carry fifty pounds; could occasionally grasp, turn, and twist objects; could occasionally make fine manipulations with his fingers; would, on average, be absent from work (or miss at least a couple hours of work) two days per month; and requires an assistive device - a cane - to ambulate. (Tr. 447-51.)

         The ALJ gave “significant weight” to part of Dr. Gerard's opinion, explaining:

The undersigned gives significant weight to the limitations set forth by Dr. Gerard that [Williams] could sit for at least six hours in an eight-hour workday, he could lift and carry ten pounds on an occasional basis, and he required the use of a cane. These limitations about sitting, lifting and carrying find support in the medical evidence showing that the claimant had degenerative disc disease but he still displayed some good function upon examination, such as full strength, intact sensation, and no neurologic deficits. Moreover, the limitation about the use of a cane is supported by the statements of other medical providers.

(Tr. 23-242 (internal citations omitted).) However, the ALJ gave “little weight” to other parts of Dr. Gerard's opinion, explaining:

[T]he undersigned gives little weight to Dr. Gerard's opinion that [Williams] would miss two days of work each month because it is not supported by the medical evidence. Furthermore, the undersigned gives little weight to the other limitations set forth by Dr. Gerard that are inconsistent with the residual functional capacity because they are unsupported by the medical evidence. For instance, Dr. Gerard's assessment that [Williams] could stand/walk for less than two hours in an eight-hour workday is too restrictive given the evidence as a whole. The limitations about sitting and standing at one time also appear to be too restrictive. It is notable that Dr. Gerard's own progress notes documented that [Williams] had a normal gait, normal joint ranges of motion, normal reflexes, and intact motor strength. Likewise, it is unclear from the questionnaire and the treatment records how Dr. Gerard concluded that [Williams] had a 50 percent limitation in his abilities to persist with tasks and maintain work pace/efficiency with even simple work tasks. As to handling and fingering, the undersigned finds that occasional handling and fingering is too restrictive given that [Williams] benefited from surgery and he displayed fairly good function both before and after the procedures.
Dr. Gerard also filled out a form about mental limitations in September 2015. Dr. Gerard opined that the claimant could perform most of the designated functions without limitations, but he had a slight limitation in the ability to complete a normal workday/week without interruptions from symptoms that cause an unreasonable number and length of rest periods. The undersigned gives little weight to Dr. Gerard's opinion because [Williams's] depression mostly developed in 2016 after this opinion was offered.

(Tr. 24 (internal citations omitted).)

         The ALJ gave “little weight” to Dr. Gerard's opinion that Williams could stand/walk for less than two hours in an eight-hour workday because it was too restrictive given Dr. Gerard's findings of “a normal gait, normal joint ranges of motion, normal reflexes, and intact motor strength.” (Id.) However, as Williams argues, “it is unclear how any of these findings detracts from Williams' ...


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