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Cera v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

December 5, 2019

VANESSA M. CERA, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Vanessa M. Cera seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision will be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), sentence four.


         On April 25, 2013, Cera applied for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on November 21, 2012. (Tr. 40.) The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on March 18, 2016. (Tr. 65-111.) Cera, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). (Id.)

         In a written decision issued August 11, 2016, the ALJ found that from November 21, 2012 through June 10, 2014, Cera had the following severe impairments: affective disorder, personality disorder, anxiety disorder, obesity, and arthralgias in her bilateral knees, hips, and spine. (Tr. 44.) The ALJ found that she did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equalled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (the “listings”). (Tr. 44-47.) The ALJ further found that, from November 21, 2012 through June 10, 2014, Cera had the residual function capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations: working in non-hazardous environments, i.e., no driving at work, operating moving machinery, working at unprotected heights or around exposed flames and unguarded large bodies of water, and avoid concentrated exposure to unguarded hazardous machinery; simple, routine tasks, work involving no more than simple decision-making, no more than occasional and minor changes in the work setting, and work requiring the exercise of only simple judgment; no work involving direct public service in person or over the phone, and only brief and superficial interaction with the public that was incidental to her primary job duties; no crowded, hectic environments; and only brief and superficial interaction with supervisors and co-workers, with no tandem tasks. (Tr. 47.) The AJL further found that due to periodic exacerbations of her symptoms, Cera would miss work an average of more than two days per month, which would preclude ongoing co mpetitive work. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Cera was under a disability from November 21, 2012 through June 10, 2014. (Tr. 52.)

         From June 11, 2014 to the date of the decision, the ALJ found that Cera's severe impairments remained the same and did not meet or equal any of the listings. (Tr. 52.) The ALJ found that Cera experienced medical improvement as of June 11, 2014. (Tr. 54.) The AL J assigned an RFC for this time period that was identical to the earlier period except that it contained no limitation for absences more than two days per month. (Tr. 54-55.) With this new RFC, the ALJ found that there existed jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Cera could perform. (Tr. 58.) The ALJ accordingly found that Cera's disability ended on June 11, 2014.

         The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied C era's request for review. (Tr. 9-13.)


         1. Applicable Legal Standards

         The Commissioner's final decision will be upheld if the ALJ applied the correct leg a l 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

         Cera argues that the ALJ erroneously found that she experienced medical improvement after June 11, 2014 because he misconstrued the record regarding her hospitalizations in 2015 and 2016. (Pl.'s Br. at 14-15, Docket # 20.) Cera also makes several arguments related to medical records that were not in her administrative file at the time of the ALJ's decision (id. at 7-11, 15-16), and argues that the ...

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