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Altaweel v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

October 17, 2019

ALI ALTAWEEL, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Nancy Joseph, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Ali Altaweel seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his application for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), sentence four.


         Altaweel filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning on June 4, 1966. (Tr. 156.) Altaweel has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an inherited disorder of the connective tissue. See (last visited October 3, 2019). Altaweel's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 13.) Altaweel filed a request for a hearing and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on August 15, 2017. (Tr. 35-59.) Altaweel testified at the hearing, as did his son Saif Altaweel, and Ray Burger, a vocational expert (“VE”). (Id.)

         In a written decision issued October 18, 2017, the ALJ found that Altaweel had the severe impairments of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, degenerative disc disease, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as a No. of non-severe impairments. (Tr. 15-17.) The ALJ further found that Altaweel did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (the “listings”). (Tr. 17-19.) The ALJ found that Altaweel had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) with the following limitations: only occasional exposure to hazards, defined as work with machinery having moving mechanical parts, use of commercial vehicles, and exposure to unprotected heights. Additionally, the ALJ found Altaweel limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with only occasional interaction with the public and co-workers. (Tr. 19-26.)

         The ALJ found that considering Altaweel's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant No. in the national economy that he could perform. (Tr. 27.) As such, the ALJ found that Altaweel was not disabled from his alleged onset date until the date of the decision. (Tr. 27.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied the plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-6.)


         1. Applicable Legal Standards

         The Commissioner's final decision will be upheld if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported his decision with substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). Substantial evidence is not conclusive evidence; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation and citation omitted). 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 conclusions 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 SSA'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)).

         2. Application to this Case

         Altaweel argues that the ALJ applied the incorrect legal standards and failed to support his decision with substantial evidence for four reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of Altaweel's treating physician and psychotherapy providers, (2) the ALJ improperly failed to consider other important evidence in the record, (3) the RFC is unsupported by substantial evidence and fails to account for the limitations established by the medical evidence, and (4) the hypotheticals presented to the VE and relied on by the ALJ did not account for Altaweel's English illiteracy. (Docket # 15.) I will address each in turn.

         2.1 Weight Given to Treating Provider Opinions Altaweel argues that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions of Altaweel's primary care physician, Dr. Eric Smiltneek, as well as two mental health care providers, Sarah Danahy and Steven Schotten. (Docket # 15 at 17-21.)

         An ALJ must consider all medical opinions in the record, but the method of evaluation varies depending on the source. Generally, more weight is given to the medical opinions of treating sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).[1] If the opinion of a treating source is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, the opinion is given “controlling weight.” Id. Even if the ALJ finds that the opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, he may not simply reject it. SSR 96-2p. Rather, if the ALJ finds that a treating source opinion does not meet the standard for controlling weight, he must evaluate the opinion's weight by considering a variety of factors, including the length, nature, and extent of the claimant and ...

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