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Lael v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

December 5, 2019

JOANNE M. LAEL, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Nancy Joseph United States Magistrate Judge.

         Joanne Lael 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 under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), sentence four.


         Lael filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning on December 4, 2012. (Tr. 18.) It was on this date that a steel plate fell on Lael's leg while she was working as a journeyman painter in a shipyard, tearing her Achilles tendon. (Tr. 461, 552.) In addition to her Achilles tendon injury, Lael alleges disability due to a back injury; deep vein thrombosis surgery; arthritis of the back, legs, knees, and hips; depression and anxiety; memory issues from head trauma; and numbness in the hands. (Tr. 329.) Lael's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 18.) Lael filed a request for a hearing and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on October 12, 2017. (Tr. 54-104.) Lael testified at the hearing, as did Timothy N. Tansey, a vocational expert. (Tr. 18.)

         In a written decision issued April 17, 2018, the ALJ found that Lael had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, obesity, varicose veins, osteoarthritis, left insertional Achilles tendinopathy, borderline intellectual functioning, anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. (Tr. 23.) The ALJ further found that Lael 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. 23-27.) The ALJ found Lael had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, but with the following limitations: only occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling; avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and the use of moving machinery; limited to unskilled work performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks; only occasional changes in the work setting and occasional decision-making; no interaction with the public; occasional interaction with coworkers; and work that allows individually performed tasks and no fast-paced production (end-of-day quotas are permitted). (Tr. 27-40.)

         The ALJ found Lael unable to perform her past relevant work; however, the ALJ found that considering Lael's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant No. in the national economy that she could perform. (Tr. 40-41.) As such, the ALJ found that Lael was not disabled from her alleged onset date until the date of the decision. (Tr. 42.) 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

         Lael argues the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the RFC failed to account for limitations established by the opinions of six treating and examining sources and because the ALJ improperly discounted Lael's subjective complaints. Lael further argues that the Appeals Council erred by finding new evidence submitted after the ALJ rendered his decision immaterial. I will address each in turn.

         2.1 Weight Given to Treating and Examining Provider Opinions

         Lael argues the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions of the following treating and examining sources: physical therapist Jerad Arndt, Dr. Brenda Dierschke, Dr. William Enright, Dr. Marco Araujo, occupational therapist Troy Gutzman, and Dr. Richard Marks. (Pl.'s Br. at 7-13, Docket # 18.)

         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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