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Lopez v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

August 26, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Patricia Lopez filed this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Lopez contends that the decision of the administrative law judge (ALJ), which became final after the Appeals Council denied review, R. 1, failed to adequately evaluate her testimony about her pain. For the reasons provided below, the Commissioner's decision will be reversed and remanded.


         Lopez filed applications for DIB and SSI in June 2015, alleging disability beginning in April 2010 due to lupus, major depression/anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fibromyalgia, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. R. 271, 278, 335. She later amended her alleged onset date to January 18, 2012. R. 317. After Lopez's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an ALJ. R. 105-06, 133-34, 206. ALJ Thomas Auble conducted a hearing on August 22, 2017, at which Lopez, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. R. 32-58.

         At the time of the hearing, Lopez was forty-five years old and had recently quit her part-time cashiering job on August 5, 2017. R. 37-38. She had been working twenty-five to thirty hours per week for a little over a year. R. 41-42. She testified that she quit because she did not have a doctor's excuse for her absence and because she was experiencing anxiety attacks. R. 42. She testified that cold weather, and sometimes hot weather, triggered lupus flare-ups, which caused her to miss work, sometimes up to two weeks in the winter. R. 42-43. Lopez also testified that she suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia and that her arthritis flares up in cold temperatures along with her lupus flare-ups, which interferes with her ability to walk. R. 43-44. She estimates that she experiences flare-ups two to three times per month on average, with more occurring in the winter. R. 44. She takes medication for her lupus and uses marijuana to treat her pain. R. 45, 50-51.

         Apart from her cashiering job, Lopez previously worked as a personal care worker beginning in 2003, which required occasional lifting of over fifty pounds and a mixture of standing and sitting. R. 39-40. Regarding daily living, Lopez testified that, on a good day, she is able to attend to her personal care, clean the house, cook, and do laundry, taking breaks as needed. R. 48-49. She testified that she is always on the move, as she can neither stand nor sit for more than five minutes without experiencing pain. R. 49-50. She also testified that she experiences hand cramps once or twice per week for two to three minutes and recurrent migraines that come back every two months, occur three times per week, and can last all day. R. 50, 52-54. She further testified that she sees a psychiatrist and a therapist and takes medications to treat her mental health conditions, such as anxiety. R. 51. She testified that she sometimes has trouble with concentration and memory. R. 52.

         In a written decision dated October 2, 2017, the ALJ concluded that Lopez was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from her amended alleged onset date of January 18, 2012 through the date of the decision. R. 24. To arrive at this conclusion, the ALJ followed the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) five-step sequential evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ determined that Lopez had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 18, 2012. R. 16. At step two, the ALJ found that Lopez had the following severe impairments: right ankle osteoarthritis status post arthroscopy and debridement, fibromyalgia, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, migraines, obesity, asthma, major depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, and cannabis dependence. R. 17. At step three, the ALJ determined that Lopez did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

         After reviewing the record as a whole, the ALJ determined that Lopez had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to

perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, and occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can have no exposure to excessive vibration, unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, or irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas. She is limited to simple, routine tasks. She can work only in a low stress job, defined as having only occasional decision making and only occasional changes in work setting. She cannot work with a production quota, meaning no strict production standard and no rigid production pace.

R. 19. At step four, the ALJ determined that Lopez was unable to perform any past relevant work. R. 23. At step five, the ALJ determined that there existed jobs in the national economy in significant numbers that Lopez could perform, such as cleaner (light), cashier (light), and usher/ticker-taker (light). R. 23-24. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Lopez was not disabled under the Social Security Act. R. 24. After the ALJ's decision became final, Lopez commenced this action for judicial review.


         The Commissioner's decision will be upheld if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported the 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 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).

         Additionally, the ALJ is 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 ...

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