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Nordness v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

September 30, 2019

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



         Claimant Lisa Nordness seeks judicial review of a final decision of defendant Andrew Saul, the Commissioner of Social Security, under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which denied her application for disability and disability insurance benefits. She contends that remand is necessary because Administrative Law Judge Ahavaha Pyrtel (“the ALJ”): (1) improperly weighed the opinions of claimant’s treating psychiatrist and licensed therapist; (2) failed to evaluate claimant’s obesity appropriately; and (3) adopted an assessment of claimant’s symptoms and mental impairments lacking in evidentiary support. The court held oral argument on this case on August 20, 2019, at which counsel for both sides appeared. For the reasons addressed below, the Commissioner’s decision will now be affirmed.


         On November 21, 2014, Nordness filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of October 25, 2012. (See AR 15.) Her application was initially denied on April 8, 2015, and then again on reconsideration on July 28, 2015. (Id.) She then appeared before the ALJ for a hearing on February 14, 2017. (Id.)

         A. Hearing Testimony

         At her hearing, Nordness testified that she was approximately 5’ 7” and 290 pounds. (AR 44.) While she could drive, Nordness explained that she did not drive daily and only drove locally. (AR 45-46.) Even so, her most recent employment had been as a bus driver for the City of Madison Metro. (AR 47.) She testified to having memory and concentration problems. (AR 58-59.) Nordness added that she could “make little decisions, ” but had assigned her daughter with power of attorney to control her finances and make larger decisions. (AR 59.) She also described physical limitations, including being unable to lift heavy things, limited reach, and an inability to bend over. (AR 57-58.) She also identified balance problems and an inability to kneel or stoop. (AR 58.)

         Despite her limitations, Nordness explained that she was taking classes to pursue a degree in human resources. (AR 60.) Since her accident, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation required her to go to school and take classes. (Id.) She also had to retake classes “because [she] flunked.” (Id.) That said, Nordness had approximately six more classes to take for the degree and had previously been on the dean’s list. (AR 61.) She acknowledged taking a hiatus on her classes explaining that “going to school and sitting in a classroom for two hours is very, very hard for [her].” (AR 62.) She further acknowledged taking care of her grandchildren “maybe [a] couple of days a week.” (AR 64-65.) Although Nordness emphasized that she was only responsible for caring for the grandkids after her granddaughter started crawling, because she was unable to pick her up. (AR 65-66.) She testified that the grandkids had a nanny before that. (AR 66.)

         B. ALJ Decision

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 18, 2017. (Id.) Concluding that Nordness met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018, the ALJ initially determined that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 25, 2012. (AR 17.) The ALJ also found that Nordness had a number of severe impairments: degenerative disk and joint disease, depression, and anxiety with features of claustrophobia. (Id.) While recognizing that Nordness was obese, the ALJ did not find this to be a severe impairment, as there was “no evidence that the claimant’s excessive weight significantly limits her ability to function.”[1] (AR 18.) At the same time, disagreeing with the state disability psychological consultants, the ALJ found Nordness’s psychological impairments to be severe. (AR 21.) However, the ALJ did not find them to be disabling because she was perceived as having a pleasant demeanor, with appropriate mood and affect, and had reported improvement with Wellbutrin. (Id.)

         As a result, the ALJ concluded that Nordness had moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information based on claimant’s pursuit of higher education and her reports of difficulty with her memory and concentration, but no difficulty understanding or following instructions. (Id.) The ALJ also found that she had moderate limitations in her ability to interact with others based on her alleged difficulties socializing contrasted with her seeking a degree to work as a human resources manager, that she had never been fired because of an inability to get along with others, and her reports that she regularly ate at restaurants, accompanied a friend to Florida, communicated with others using the computer, shopped weekly, and got along fine with authority figures. (AR 22.)

         As to concentration, persistence and pace, the ALJ found Nordness had only mild limitations because of: her two years of college since her alleged onset date; her strong academic performance; and her reports that she could finish what she started, but had trouble concentrating and remembering, and her ability to handle finances. (Id.) Her reports that she had trouble with concentration and her memory were related to her pain and medication side effects -- not her mental health. (Id.) Finally, as to adapting or managing herself, she had no limitations: she completed two years of college since her alleged onset date and she reported handling stress and changes to her routine well. (AR 22-23.)

         Finally, the ALJ concluded that Nordness could perform sedentary work, with specific limitations, including that she could not reach overhead with her left arm, nor could she crouch or crawl. (AR 23.) Claimant was also precluded from working in small, enclosed spaces and was limited to occasional interaction with others. (Id.) Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Nordness was not disabled. (AR 32.)[2]


         This court defers to an ALJ’s decision to deny benefits unless 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). In addition, the ALJ must build 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)). Given these strictures, a reviewing court is not to “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) (citations omitted). Still, the court must conduct a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming a decision to deny benefits. McKinzey, 641 F.3d at 889. Here, plaintiff identifies three flaws in the ALJ’s reasoning which, she argues, require remand. For the reasons explained below, the court finds the ALJ has built a sufficient logical bridge between the evidence and her legal conclusions with respect to each.

         I. Treatment Providers

         Claimant first argues that the ALJ failed to articulate good reasons for rejecting the opinions of Jane Gogan, Ph.D., her treating psychiatrist, and Carla Eichinger, LPC, her treating therapist. (Pl.’s Br. ...

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