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Howard v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

August 27, 2019

RONNIE B. HOWARD, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          NANCY JOSEPH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Ronnie B. Howard seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Howard filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on July 31, 2013. (Tr. 25.) Howard alleges disability beginning on June 7, 2013, due to a back disorder, depression, carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension. (Tr. 32.) Howard's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 25.) Howard filed a request for a hearing and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on September 19, 2016. (Tr. 44- 97.) Howard testified at the hearing, as did James J. Radke, a vocational expert. (Id. at 44.)

         In a written decision issued November 29, 2016, the ALJ found that Howard had the severe impairment of disorders of the back. (Tr. 27.) The ALJ further found that Howard did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (the “listings”). (Tr. 31.) The ALJ found Howard had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations: never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; never work at unprotected heights; and will be off-task less than ten percent of the time in an eight-hour workday in addition to normal breaks. (Id.)

         The ALJ found that Howard could perform his past relevant work as a school cafeteria cook. (Tr. 37.) As such, the ALJ found that Howard was not disabled from his alleged onset date until the date of the decision. (Tr. 38.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 11-15.)

         DISCUSSION

         1. Applicable Legal Standards

         The Commissioner's final decision will be upheld if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported his decision with substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). Substantial evidence is not conclusive evidence; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation and citation omitted). 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 also 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 v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 93-95 (1943); Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 307 (7th Cir. 2010)).

         2. Application to this Case

         Howard argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly weighing the opinion evidence in the record; (2) finding his depression non-severe; (3) improperly discounting Howard's subjective symptoms; (4) failing to properly consider Howard's obesity; and (5) finding that Howard could return to his past work as a school cafeteria cook. I will address each argument in turn.

         2.1 Weight Given to Opinion Evidence in the Record

         Howard argues that the ALJ erred by assigning little weight to the opinion of Howard's treating primary care physician, Dr. Benjamin Tobin, and to the assessments in the treatment notes of Howard's treating physician, Dr. Vance Masci (a specialist in occupational medicine). Howard further argues that the ALJ erred in assigning great weight to the State Agency consultants' opinions.

         An ALJ must consider all medical opinions in the record, but the method of evaluation varies depending on the source. Generally, more weight is given to the medical opinions of treating sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).[1] If the opinion of a treating source is well- supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, the opinion is given “controlling weight.” Id. Even if the ALJ finds that the opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, he may not simply reject it. Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-2p. Rather, if the ALJ finds that a treating source opinion does not meet the standard for controlling weight, he must evaluate the opinion's weight by considering a variety of factors, including the length, nature and extent of the claimant ...


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