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Buss v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

October 31, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff Agnes Rose Buss seeks judicial review of a final decision by defendant Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, finding that Buss was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Buss argues that the administrative law judge, Joseph D. Jacobson, committed three errors meriting remand. The court held oral argument on this case on October 28, 2019, at which counsel for both sides participated telephonically. For the reasons set forth below, the final decision of the Commissioner will be affirmed.


         Plaintiff Agnes Rose Buss seeks disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income based on an alleged disability that began on June 2, 2013. Her claims were initially denied on October 1, 2014, and again upon reconsideration on August 13, 2015. On June 28, 2017, an administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Joseph D. Jacobson. Two months later, the ALJ issued a twelve-page written decision denying Buss's claims. Buss has now appealed this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Buss suffers from a number of impairments, including fibromyalgia, chronic pain in her lower back and legs, degenerative disk disease with bulging disk, depression, learning disability, hypertriglyceridemia, peripheral edema, hypothyroidism, asthma, headaches, and obstructive sleep apnea. The combination of these impairments, plaintiff argues, impose more than moderate limitations on Buss's ability to perform work-related activities and maintain gainful employment. Of particular prominence in plaintiff's medical records is the chronic pain that she experiences as a result of these impairments.

         The ALJ assessed Buss's alleged disability under the five step sequential framework set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ first found that Buss met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2020, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (AR at 18.) The ALJ next found that Buss had the following severe impairments: inflammatory arthritis, obesity, spine disorder, and fibromyalgia. (AR at 19.) The ALJ also found that Buss suffered from a number of nonsevere physical impairments, including carpal tunnel syndrome, mild obstructive sleep apnea, asthma, hypothyroidism, hypertension, and headaches. (AR at 19.) Finally, the ALJ assessed Buss's mental impairments under the four areas of mental functioning set out in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR at 19-20.) The ALJ noted in part that Buss had a “mild limitation” in the function area of “concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace.” (AR at 20.) Overall, the ALJ concluded that Buss's mental impairment caused no more than mild limitation in any of the functional areas and was, therefore, nonsevere. (AR at 20.)

         The ALJ next considered whether Buss's impairments met or were medically equal to the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR at 20.) The ALJ specifically considered: whether Buss's back impairments met the severity requirements under Listing 1.04; whether her inflammatory arthritis met the requirements under Listing 14.09; and whether her fibromyalgia or obesity (for which there are no specific listings) gave rise to a listing-level severity. (AR at 21.) The ALJ ultimately found that Buss did not have a physical impairment that met or equaled one of the listed impairments. (AR at 20-21.) In reaching this finding, the ALJ also purported to have considered “all of claimants impairments . . . both individually and in combination.” (AR at 20 (emphasis added).)

         The ALJ then evaluated Schultz's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). As a part of his analysis, he considered the opinion evidence of Erin Maslowski, whom he identified as Buss's “treating physician.” (AR at 24.) Dr. Maslowski opined that:

The claimant could sit 4 hours a day, stand/walk 4 hours a day, would need a sit/stand/walk option, would require unscheduled breaks, and would need to elevate her legs. Dr. Maslowski opined the claimant could lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and could rarely or never twist, bend, crouch, or climb stairs and ladders. She opined the claimant would be off task 25% of the workday, could perform low stress work, and would miss more than 4 days of work per months.

(AR at 24.) Nevertheless, the ALJ accorded Dr. Maslowski's opinion “limited weight, ” because: it was “not consistent with a longitudinal review of the objective medical evidence of record”; she “did not provide significant treatment during the period at issue”; and her findings were based “more on the claimant's subjective reports and not on a medical professional's evaluation of the objective medical evidence of record.” (AR at 24.)

         Instead, the ALJ concluded that Buss had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), if limited to: (1) a sit/stand option; (2) occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, crawling, and climbing ramps and stairs; (3) never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (4) frequent handling and fingering bilaterally; (5) jobs that can be performed while using a cane for prolonged ambulation or uneven terrain; (6) avoiding concentrated exposure to irritants and all exposure to moving machinery and unprotected heights; and (7) simple, routine, repetitive tasks. (AR at 22.) Given this RFC, and considering Buss's age, education and work experience, the ALJ further accepted the vocational expert's opinion that jobs exist in sufficient numbers in the national economy for Buss to perform. (AR at 26.) As a result, the ALJ ultimately concluded that Buss had not been under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. (AR at 26.)


         Judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security is authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). An ALJ's findings of fact are considered “conclusive, ” so long as they are supported by “substantial evidence.” § 405(g). 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 reviewing the Commissioner's findings, the court cannot reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, decide questions of credibility or otherwise substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000).

         At the same time, the court must conduct a “critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Sullivan,985 F.2d 334, 336 (7th Cir. 1993). If the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, then the court must remand the matter. Villano v. Astrue,556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Even when adequate evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision will not be affirmed if the Commissioner does not build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the final conclusion. Berger v. Astrue,516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008); Sarchet v. Chater,78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 2006). To build ...

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