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Condon v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

December 30, 2019

TAMMY CONDON, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Tammy Condon alleges she has been disabled since June 11, 2014, due to severe nerve damage; fibromyalgia; migraine headaches; a brain injury; and back, neck, and shoulder problems. (ECF No. 16-1 at 47; ECF No. 16-5 at 23.) In 2014 she applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (ECF No. 16-1 at 12; ECF No. 16-4 at 1.) After her applications were denied initially (ECF No. 16-2 at 1-26, 151-52) and upon reconsideration (ECF No. 16-2 at 27-52, 153-54), a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on May 24, 2017 (ECF No. 16-1 at 51-96). On September 11, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision, concluding that Condon was not disabled. (ECF No. 16-1 at 12-32.) The Appeals Council denied Condon's request for review on July 24, 2018. (ECF No. 16-1 at 3-7.) This action followed. All parties have consented to the full jurisdiction of a magistrate judge (ECF Nos. 23, 24), and the matter is now ready for resolution.


         In determining whether a person is disabled an ALJ applies a five-step sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At step one the ALJ determines whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-1576, 416.971-976. The ALJ found that Condon “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 11, 2014, the amended alleged onset date.” (ECF No. 16-1 at 14.)

         The analysis then proceeds to the second step, which is a consideration of whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is “severe.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). “In order for an impairment to be considered severe at this step of the process, the impairment must significantly limit an individual's ability to perform basic work activities.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014). The ALJ concluded that Condon “has the following severe impairments: disorders of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine; obesity; knee disorders; right shoulder degenerative joint disease and a torn ligament; depression; posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); an anxiety disorder; and a learning disorder in reading.” (ECF No. 16-1 at 14.)

         At step three, the ALJ is to determine whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 4, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926) (called “The Listings”). If the impairment or impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing, and meets the twelvemonth duration requirement, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909, the claimant is disabled. If the claimant's impairment or impairments is not of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria set forth in a listing, the analysis proceeds to the next step. The ALJ found that Condon “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments.” (ECF No. 16-1 at 15.)

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), “which is [the claimant's] ‘ability to do physical and mental work activities on a regular basis despite limitations from her impairments.'” Ghiselli v. Colvin, 837 F.3d 771, 774 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121). In making the RFC finding, the ALJ must consider all of the claimant's impairments, including impairments that are not severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929; SSR 96-8p. In other words, the RFC determination is a function by function assessment of the claimant's “maximum work capability.” Elder v. Asture, 529 F.3d 408, 412 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ concluded that Condon has the RFC

to perform sedentary work . . . except with additional limitations. She should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She should not work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving machinery. She is occasionally able to climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. She is occasionally able to reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities. She is frequently able to handle and finger with the bilateral upper extremities. She is able to frequently but not constantly rotate the neck from side to side. She should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, dusts, odors, gases, or other pulmonary irritants. She is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions in an environment free of fast-paced production requirements and involving few, if any, work place changes.

(ECF No. 16-1 at 18.)

         After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ at step four must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565, 416.965. The ALJ concluded that Condon “is unable to perform any past relevant work.” (ECF No. 16-1 at 30.)

         The last step of the sequential evaluation process requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant can do any other work, considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC. At this step, the ALJ concluded that, “[c]onsidering [Condon's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Condon] can perform.” (ECF No. 16-1 at 31.) In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ relied on testimony from a vocational expert (VE) who testified that a hypothetical individual of Condon's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform the requirements of a call-out operator, a circuit board inspector, and a cashier. (ECF No. 16-1 at 31-32.)

         After finding that Condon could perform work in the national economy, the ALJ concluded that Condon “has not been under a disability . . . from June 11, 2014, through the date of this decision.” (ECF No. 16-1 at 32.)


         The court's role in reviewing an 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).

         It is not the Court's role to reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. Rather, the court must determine whether the ALJ complied with her obligation to build an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and her conclusion that is sufficient to enable a court to review the administrative findings. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014); Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). “This deference is lessened, however, where the ALJ's findings rest on an error of fact or logic.” Thomas, 745 F.3d at 806. If the ALJ committed a material error of law, the court cannot affirm the ALJ's decision regardless of whether it is supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837; Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2012).


         Condon argues that the ALJ erred in (1) evaluating and assigning weight to the opinions of treating psychiatrist Dr. Todd J. Boffeli and treating pain management specialists Jeremy Scarlett, MD, and Christa Scheunemann, NP; (2) assessing her subjective-symptom allegations; and (3) not considering all of her impairments and the functional limitations they caused.

         I. Treating source opinions

         “For claims filed before March 2017, a treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of a medical condition is entitled to controlling weight if it is well-supported by medical findings and consistent with substantial evidence in the record.” Johnson v. Berryhill, 745 Fed.Appx. 247, 250 (7th Cir. 2018) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Brown v. Colvin, 845 F.3d 247, 252 (7th Cir. 2016)). “If an ALJ does not give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the regulations require the ALJ to consider the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship, frequency of examination, the physician's specialty, the types of tests performed, and the consistency and supportability of the physician's opinion” to determine how much weight to give the opinion. Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). “An ALJ must offer good reasons for discounting a treating physician's opinion.” Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotations and citation omitted).

         A. ...

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