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Melchert v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

September 30, 2019

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


          WILLIAM M. CONLEY, District Judge.

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


         Both of plaintiff’s applications allege disability beginning March 20, 2009. Her claims were denied on July 14, 2014, and upon reconsideration on January 5, 2015. A hearing was then held before Administrative Law Judge Mary M. Kunz on May 2, 2016.

         The ALJ found that Melchert suffered from a variety of severe impairments, including coronary artery disease with past stenting and angioplasty, asthma, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the right hip, possible peripheral arterial disease, and fibromyalgia. (AR 13.) The ALJ found other health issues were not severe impairments, including diabetes, obesity, forearm tendinitis, and shoulder pain, although limitations related to this condition were included in the RFC. (Id.) The ALJ did not find any severe mental impairment or combination of mental impairments after an application of the paragraph B criteria. (AR 13-14.)

         The ALJ denied Melchert’s claims on June 1, 2016, finding that she was capable of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(a) without exposure to high concentrations of air pollutants, more than occasional overhead work, or walking more than 10 minutes at a time, and with the allowance of brief changes in position after 60 minutes of work. (AR 16.)


         This court must defer to an ALJ’s decision 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)). A reviewing court will 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 ALJ must create an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and the legal 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)). The court must conduct a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming a decision to deny benefits. Id. at 889.

         Here, plaintiff raises five issues on appeal, arguing that the ALJ failed to: (1) consider the side effects of medication; (2) acknowledge the medical opinion of Dr. Swetha Gudibanda; (3) properly analyze plaintiff’s credibility; (4) properly analyze plaintiff’s obesity; and (5) properly assess plaintiff’s RFC. Even reviewing the evidence critically, the ALJ has explained her treatment of each of these issues sufficiently to require affirmance as set forth below.

         I. Side Effects of Medication

          Plaintiff begins by incorrectly asserting that the ALJ never discussed or considered the side effects of her medication, which she testified caused her drowsiness. In fact, the ALJ addressed this testimony both directly and by implication. Directly, the ALJ explained that plaintiff’s complaints were only cursorily mentioned in plaintiff’s medical records, with NP Anderson’s treatment notes from November 30, 2015, mentioning a complaint of drowsiness from use of Tramadol. (AR 19.) As the ALJ also noted, this course of treatment was neither discontinued nor was a referral made to a specialist, either of which would have been appropriate if her concerns of medication-induced drowsiness were considered serious. (Id.) More generally, the ALJ doubted the veracity of claims about increased symptoms made by plaintiff given the lack of contemporaneous treatment notes after that date. (Id.) While the ALJ speculated that NP Richard Anderson may have been moved by the loss of plaintiff’s husband to later support conclusions that were not supported by her notes, the ALJ was permitted to rely on contemporaneous treatment notes and lack of any steps to address supposed drowsiness after November 2015. Regardless, plaintiff’s counsel’s representation that side effects were never mentioned or considered is a misrepresentation of the record.

         Beyond this direct discussion, the ALJ also expressed doubt about plaintiff’s claimed drowsiness given her daily activities. (AR 20 (noting that “[w]hile [plaintiff] testified she spends a large amount of time sleeping or sitting with her legs up, ” she was able to engage in a wide range of activities).) Similarly, the ALJ explained that “while the claimant testified to sleeping during the day for two to three hours and being recumbent in the chair for two to three hours, there is no indication in the record this was recommended by any treating source.” (AR 18.)

         II. Opinion of Dr. Gudibanda

          Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ erred by not considering the medical opinion of Dr. Swetha Gudibanda, who found plaintiff (1) could not lift more than ten pounds or work five consecutive days, (2) would need to miss more than four days a month, and (3) would need to be able to sit, stand and walk less than three hours per day. However, as the ALJ found, this “opinion” seems to have consisted of signing a form prepared by NP Anderson, who ...

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