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Cousineau v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

September 16, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          William C. Griesbach, Chief United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Angie Ann Cousineau filed this action for judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge's (ALJ) decision is flawed and requires remand because the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions of her rheumatologist. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner will be reversed and remanded.


         Plaintiff, age 40 at the time, filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on February 10, 2014, alleging disability beginning January 21, 2014. She listed Type I diabetes, fibromyalgia, arthritis, heart disease, hypothyroidism, gastroperesis, and Raynaud's disease as the conditions that limited her ability to work. R. 211. Her application was denied initially on April 21, 2014, and upon reconsideration on January 23, 2015. Plaintiff subsequently requested an administrative hearing before an ALJ, and on April 24, 2017, ALJ Peter Kafkas held a hearing. Plaintiff, who was appointed a representative, and a vocational expert (VE) testified.

         At the time of her hearing, Plaintiff lived with her husband in a two-story house. R. 45. She testified that she lives on the first floor of her home but can walk up one flight of stairs. R. 46. Plaintiff worked at Oshkosh Corporation as the director of process improvement and was responsible for auditing. She went on medical leave due to some health problems. R. 50. Plaintiff testified that she could walk for 10 to 20 minutes and stand for 5 to 10 minutes before her conditions would begin bothering her. She reported that she has difficulty grasping with her hands and picking things up with her fingers. She attributed these difficulties to weakness and stiffness in her hands. R. 52. Plaintiff also reported getting lightheaded and dizzy when she stands up too quickly and when she walks. R. 53. She testified that she walks 10 to 20 minutes in the morning and for 5 to 10 minutes in the afternoon. Id. Plaintiff indicated she takes a nap in the morning and occasionally in the afternoon. R. 54.

         Plaintiff also testified about her average day. She reported that she wakes up between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. and eats breakfast. She then walks for 10 to 20 minutes to try to loosen up. After her walk, Plaintiff takes a nap, sits in her chair, and eats lunch. Plaintiff will occasionally read after lunch. Depending on the day, Plaintiff will take another nap. She then eats dinner, watches television, and goes to bed between 8:00 and 8:30 p.m. Plaintiff testified that she prepares simple meals and her husband prepares the rest. R. 60. He also does all of the household chores. R. 61.

         In a written decision dated August 1, 2017, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. R. 10-20. Following the agency's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ concluded at step one that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2017, and did not engage in substantial gainful activity since January 21, 2014, the alleged onset date. R. 12. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, gastroparesis, and ischemic heart disease. Id. He concluded diabetes mellitus, hypertension, Raynaud's disease, and hypothyroidism are nonsevere impairments because they have been responsive to treatment, cause no more than minimal vocationally relevant limitations, have not lasted or are not expected to result in more than minimal work-related restriction for a continuous period of at least twelve months, are not expected to result in death, or have not been properly diagnosed by an acceptable medical source. R. 12-13. At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 13.

         After reviewing the record, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except she can “lift up to twenty pounds occasionally, lift or carry up to ten pounds frequently, stand or walk for approximately six hours per eight-hour work day, and sit for approximately six hours per eight-hour workday.” R. 14. He also found she was capable of “frequent handling bilaterally” and “frequent fingering bilaterally.” Id. The ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a controller, project manager, and bank manager. R. 18. Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. R. 20. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review.


         The final decision of the Commissioner will be upheld if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported her 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 conclusion 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 Social Security Administration'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)).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinions of Dr. Eric Gowing, her rheumatologist. Dr. Gowing completed a number of medical source statements regarding Plaintiff's ability to work. In February 2014, Dr. Gowing opined that Plaintiff could not stand or walk, lift more than ten pounds, or sit for more than one to three hours a day. R. 421. He also noted that Plaintiff could not use her upper extremities for grasping, fine manipulation, or pushing and pulling and could occasionally bend, squat, climb, kneel, crawl, and reach above shoulder level. Id. Dr. Gowing further opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in her ability to perform complex and varied tasks. Id.

         In September 2014, Dr. Gowing noted that Plaintiff could not maintain gainful employment due to her musculoskeletal symptoms. R. 425. In March 2015, Dr. Gowing completed a physical capacities evaluation form. He checked boxes indicating that Plaintiff could occasionally lift up to five pounds, sit for two hours, and stand or walk for one-hour during a workday. R. 517-18. He opined that Plaintiff could use hands for simple grasping but not fine manipulation. Id. He also noted that Plaintiff was markedly limited in many mental areas of work including making simple work-related decisions and maintaining attention and concentration. He indicated that Plaintiff suffers from fatigue caused by ...

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