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Hodges v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

October 11, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL[1], Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         1. Procedural History

         Bonnie Marie Hodges, alleging she has been disabled since July 28, 2014, seeks Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. The Commissioner's final decision denying her claim for benefits is set forth in the November 1, 2017 decision of an administrative law judge (ALJ). (Tr. 14-23.) Following a hearing,

the ALJ found that Hodges suffered from “fibromyalgia, poly-arthralgia, cervical disc disease, cervical radiculopathy, temporomandibular joint syndrome, adjustment disorder and depressive disorder with some anxiety.” (Tr. 17.) She concluded that Hodges had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(h) except she needs the option to sit every 45 minutes for one to five minutes, but can continue working while seated. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crawl, crouch, and climb ramps or stairs. She cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She must avoid extreme cold temperatures such as refrigerated environments, and hazards such as heights and large moving machinery. She can perform simple, routine tasks.

(Tr. 18.)

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Hodges was not disabled because “considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the claimant is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” (Tr. 22.)

         2. Standard of Review

         The court's role in reviewing the ALJ's decision is limited. It does not look at the evidence anew and make an independent determination as to whether the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1120. Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1120-21 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Thus, it is possible that opposing conclusions both can be supported by substantial evidence. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). If the ALJ committed a material error of law, however, the court cannot affirm the ALJ's decision regardless of whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014); Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2012).

         3. Analysis

         3.1. Headaches

         The ALJ stated, “The medical records note subjective complaints of headaches with various possible etiologies, but they do not suggest debilitating severity. (E.g., Ex. 8F; Ex. 13F; Ex. 16F; Ex. 21F.)” (Tr. 20.) It is unclear for what purpose the ALJ cited roughly 200 pages of medical records other than if it was to show simply that Hodges complained of headaches. But it is the second clause of the quoted sentence-that Hodges' headaches “do not suggest debilitating severity”-that is most relevant to the court. Absent additional explanation or a citation to specific pages, the court cannot say that the ALJ complied with her obligation to explain why she believed these roughly 200 pages of medical records suggest Hodges's headaches were non-debilitating.

         In fact, there are many statements in the medical records cited by the ALJ that tend to support a finding that the headaches are severe and would impair her ability to work. (See, e.g., Tr. 647 (noting “severe headaches” two to six days per week, sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting); 661 (“Headaches are also quite significant, and pain on a 0-10 scale ranges from 3-10 and averages 7. The base of her neck is the most involved area. ‘Meds make me fatigued at work, work makes pain worse, and I don't know what to do.'”); 770 (“She still has significant headaches and neck pain, with pain ranging from 6-10 and averaging 8 on a 0-10 scale.”); 777 (“She has significant headaches two to three times per week.”); 899 (“She has had headaches for the past 7 years. Pain is constant but varies in intensity. Pain is described as throbbing, stabbing, shooting, hot, sharp, achy and tingling. Pain is rated as 6/10 at best and 10/10 at worst. Average pain rating is 6-8/10. It gets worse as the day progresses. Worse with physical activity and emotional stress.”); 1077 (“Patient states that she has been having more headaches. States that the headaches even make her nauseated at times.”).) Hodges kept a headache diary from August 2015 to January 2017. (Tr. 965-980.)

         The only specific explanation the ALJ offered for her conclusion that Hodges's headaches were not debilitating was to observe that she “has not required emergency treatment for headache relief.” (Tr. 20.) Not only is this rationale not supported by medical evidence-for example, no medical professional said that a person with severe headaches would be expected to seek emergency treatment--it is contrary to common sense. A lay person would not expect chronic headaches to warrant emergency treatment. In fact, that would seemingly be the case of any chronic condition, with “chronic” describing a condition that is always there, or reoccurs and never completely goes away. A person suffering from a chronic condition may reasonably presume that suffering yet another day of pain does not present a medical emergency. See Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 709 (7th Cir. 2013) (“[W]e do not understand the Commissioner's point; a person suffering continuous pain might seek unscheduled treatment if that pain unpredictably spikes to a level which is intolerable, but otherwise why would an emergency-room visit be sensible? Unless emergency treatment can be expected to result in relief, unscheduled treatment in fact makes no sense.”).

         Hodges's headaches were a persistent complaint and a significant aspect of her claim of disability. It was error for the ALJ to dismiss them without providing a good reason for doing so. This error was material; if Hodges suffered headaches of the frequency and severity she alleged, they may result in absenteeism or time off task that would be work preclusive. (See, e.g., Tr. 53 (vocational expert testimony that an employer would tolerate a maximum of two absences per month and ten percent ...

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