United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
DECISION AND ORDER
WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 ...