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Dahl v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

September 6, 2019

TAMMY DAHL, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Plaintiff Tammy Dahl filed this action pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. R. 15, 219-29. Dahl claims that the administrative law judge's (ALJ's) decision, which became the final decision of the Commissioner after the Appeals Council denied review, R. 1-6, is erroneous because (1) the ALJ violated Social Security Ruling (SSR) 00-4p by failing to resolve the conflict between the vocational expert's (VE's) testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and (2) the ALJ failed to give adequate weight to the opinion of Dr. Ward Jankus, a consultative examiner. For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         On December 18 and 19, 2013, Dahl filed claims for DIB and SSI, respectively, alleging disability beginning October 4, 2013, due to right arm neuropathy, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and hypothyroidism. R. 15, 94, 109, 219-29. Dahl's claims were denied, both initially on June 23, 2014, and upon reconsideration on March 30, 2015. R. 15, 158, 166. Dahl thereafter filed a written request for a hearing before an ALJ on April 9, 2015. R. 172. ALJ John Martin conducted a hearing on December 13, 2016, at which Dahl, who was represented by counsel, Dahl's husband and daughter, and a VE testified. R. 35-37.

         At the time of the hearing, Dahl was 51 years old and lived in a duplex with her husband and daughter. R. 44-45. Dahl, who is right-handed, testified that she has neuropathy in both hands, but her right is worse. R. 45. Regarding past work history, Dahl testified that she worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in 2001, which required that she constantly stand and occasionally lift/roll people of various sizes. R. 49-50. Also in 2001, Dahl worked as a cashier/stocker and temp clerk, which involved standing on her feet and sometimes lifting up to 55-60 pounds. R. 50-51. In 2005 and 2007, respectively, Dahl worked at a nursing home and hospital, which involved similar standing and lifting requirements as her other CNA work. R. 51-52. In 2011, Dahl worked as a packager, which required constant standing and lifting up to 65 pounds. R. 52-53.

         When asked why she considers herself incapable of work, Dahl testified that she cannot lift; she is tired all the time; she experiences pain and numbness in her arms and legs due to neuropathy; her back “goes out”; she has feet and leg cramps; she experiences painful dry skin on her fingers; and she is very depressed. R. 53-54. When asked to rate her pain at the hearing on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being severe pain, Dahl answered: “Ten.” R. 54-55. Dahl testified that she has diabetes, high cholesterol, and thyroid problems, for which she takes medications. R. 55-56. Dahl does not take medications for her pain or depression because they upset her stomach and can affect her blood sugar. R. 56-57, 59. Dahl also testified that she experiences pain and tingling in her hands, which caused her to alter the way she performs various daily tasks, and that her right hand goes numb after five seconds of writing. R. 61-62. She also experiences varying blood sugar levels and at times loses her balance when walking. R. 66-67.

         In a decision dated March 15, 2017, the ALJ concluded that Dahl was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act since October 4, 2013. R. 22-23. To arrive at this conclusion, the ALJ considered the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) five-step sequential evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ determined that Dahl had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 4, 2013, her alleged onset date. R. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that Dahl had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy and essential hypertension. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Dahl 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. R. 18.

         After reviewing the whole record, the ALJ concluded that Dahl had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to

perform a range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). She can lift, carry, push, and pull up to twenty pounds occasionally and similarly handle ten-pound weights on a frequent basis. She can sit for six hours, stand for six hours and walk for six hours during an eight-hour day. She is limited to no more than frequent reaching overhead and in other directions but is limited to occasional handling and fingering with the right hand. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds but may occasionally stoop, kneel, balance, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps and stairs. She should not work at unprotected heights or around moving machinery, should not operate motor vehicles and should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold or vibration.

R. 19. At step four, the ALJ determined that Dahl cannot perform any of her past relevant work. R. 21. Finally, the ALJ determined at step five that there exist jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Dahl could perform, including 75, 000 housekeeping jobs, 97, 000 information clerk jobs, and 20, 000 cafeteria helper jobs. R. 22. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Dahl was not disabled since October 4, 2013. Id. After the ALJ's decision became final, R. 1-6, Dahl commenced this action for judicial review.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Judicial review of the decisions of administrative agencies is intended to be deferential. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010). The Social Security Act specifies that the “findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that “[u]nder the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains ‘sufficien[t] evidence' to support the agency's factual determinations.” Beistek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). “The phrase ‘substantial evidence, '” the Court explained, “is a ‘term of art' used throughout administrative law to describe how courts are to review agency factfinding.” Id. “And whatever the meaning of ‘substantial' in other contexts, ” the Court noted, “the threshold for such evidentiary sufficiency is not high.” Id. Substantial evidence is “‘more than a mere scintilla.' . . . It means-and means only-‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Consolidated Edison, 305 U.S. at 229).

         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 v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). The ALJ must provide a “logical bridge” between the evidence and conclusions. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). Given this standard, and because a reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, “challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence rarely succeed.” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005).

         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). 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 ...


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