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Dorsey v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

September 27, 2019

LYNN G. DORSEY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. CONLEY DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Lynn G. Dorsey seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied her application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. For the reasons provided below, the court will affirm the Commissioner’s determination and enter judgment in defendant’s favor.

         BACKGROUND

         On April 15, 2013, Dorsey filed a Title II application for a period of disability beginning June 21, 2011. Her claim was denied on November 20, 2013, and upon reconsideration on April 30, 2014. A video hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge John H. Pleuss on August 11, 2015, following which the ALJ found Dorsey suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including a back condition, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, and cirrhosis. (AR at 14.) At the same time, the ALJ found other health impairments were not severe, including affective disorder, lung problems, arthritis, complaints of pain in the back and legs, and vision problems. (Id. at 16-17.) In his September 23, 2015, the ALJ went on to find that Dorsey was capable of past relevant work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1565 with a variety of additional limitations on physical activities and exposure to environmental irritants. (AR at 15.)

         OPINION

         This court must defer to an ALJ’s decision to deny benefits unless it is unsupported by substantial evidence or based on an error of law. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the [Commissioner’s] designate, the ALJ).” Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178, 181 (7th Cir. 1990) (quoting Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)).

         As a result, a reviewing court may not “reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). Still, the court must conduct a “critical review of the evidence, ” and the ALJ’s written decision must provide an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and the conclusion that the claimant is not disabled. McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         Here, plaintiff argues on appeal that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the evidence and explain his reasoning with respect to: (1) her residual functional capacity; (2) her subjective testimony; and (3) the medical source opinions. The court will address each criticism in turn below.

         I. Residual Functional Capacity Determination

         As an initial matter, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding that her “end-stage” cirrhosis had improved to some extent, because it is incapable of improvement.[1]However characterized, the ALJ expressly examined the impact of the condition on plaintiff’s RFC and acknowledged that this condition has caused her pain. (AR 16.) In the absence of evidence that suggests her cirrhosis is sufficiently disabling to change the ALJ’s RFC determination with respect to the potential jobs identified by the vocational expert, this is an insufficient basis to remand for further fact finding. See Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 754 (7th Cir. 2004) (“The issue in the case is not the existence of these various conditions of [claimant’s] but their severity and, concretely, whether . . . they have caused her such severe pain that she cannot work full time.”); Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 639–40 (7th Cir. 1998) (noting that, whatever the diagnosis, the claimant must provide sufficient evidence of actual disability).

         Plaintiff also argues the ALJ erred in evaluating her assertion of disabling COPD by pointing to her exercise activities without mentioning related back pain. However, the ALJ noted a variety of other activities performed by plaintiff that cast doubt on her claim of disabling COPD, including “vigorous” house cleaning, patterns of inhaler use, daily walking with a lack of shortness of breath, and the ability to climb stairs. (AR 17.) Similarly, the fact that plaintiff’s forced expiratory volume was found to be near listing level does not by itself require remand.

         Moreover, the ALJ expressed skepticism with respect to both her cirrhosis and COPD claims, noting that plaintiff mention neither condition when asked why she could not work, instead pointing to her claims of back and leg pain. (AR 17.) Ultimately, the ALJ found that plaintiff’s statements about the severity of her symptoms were not fully credible. (AR 18.)

         Plaintiff next argues the ALJ conflated vision issues with optic neuropathy and, therefore, misunderstood plaintiff’s claim that eyesight problems would render work tasks difficult, but ignores that the ALJ acknowledged her claims of vision problems. (AR 17.) Specifically, the ALJ made a credibility determination, finding that the symptoms may not have been as severe as she claimed, since plaintiff only questioned the effectiveness of her eyeglasses prescription at the same time she asked for “a letter for disability” from her ophthalmologist. (AR 17.) Because plaintiff never returned for adjustments after that point, the ALJ did not err by inferring that either the eyeglasses were effective from then on or the vision problems were not significantly limiting. Either way, plaintiff’s attempt to distinguish between those conditions does not bear on the RFC determination.

         Finally, with respect to her back issues, plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by noting her “minimal complaints” when there was other, subjective testimony about her experiencing more significant pain, including pain related to use of a Gazelle exerciser during part of the period. (AR 783.) Since the latter pain appears to have been exercise induced, plaintiff fails to explain why it would undermine the ALJ’s conclusions that her complaints of back pain would be more frequent and debilitating if truly severe. Putting aside the ALJ’s finding that there was not a significant number of complaints of back pain during the period, the ALJ also relied on the lack of any diagnostic support for these complaints of pain. (AR at 17.) Specifically, examinations conducted in 2012 and 2013 showed positive results and a lack of significant distress. (AR 17.) While plaintiff disputes some of the examples cited by the ALJ to conclude that she remained “very active, ” these disputes do not undermine the ...


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