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Bruggeman v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

January 2, 2020

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Kimberly S. Bruggeman 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 affirmed.


         Bruggeman filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning on August 29, 2014 due to bulging discs, scoliosis, degenerative joint disease, right knee condition, “both feet condition, ” kidney disease, and depression. (Tr. 239.) Bruggeman's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 17.) Bruggeman filed a request for a hearing and a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 17, 2017. (Tr. 37-82.) Bruggeman testified at the hearing, as did Dr. Matthew Sprong, a vocational expert. (Tr. 37.)

         In a written decision issued August 2, 2017, the ALJ found that Bruggeman had the severe impairments of obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and degenerative joint disease of the right knee. (Tr. 20.) The ALJ considered Bruggeman's impairments under Listing 1.02-Major dysfunction of a joint(s) and Listing 1.04-Disorders of the spine but found that she did not meet or medically equal either listing. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 (the “listings”). (Tr. 21.) The ALJ further found that Bruggeman's obesity did not meet or equal the criteria for any listed impairments. (Id.) The ALJ found that Bruggeman had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of sedentary work. (Id.) Specifically, she was precluded from climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and kneeling or crawling. (Id.) The ALJ limited Bruggeman to occasionally climbing ramps and stairs, stooping, and crouching. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ limited her to jobs that can be performed while using a hand held assistive device only for uneven terrain or prolonged ambulation and the contralateral upper extremity can be used to lift and carry up to exertional limits. (Id.)

         The ALJ found Bruggeman capable of performing her past relevant work as a day care center director. (Tr. 29.) The ALJ alternatively found that given Bruggeman's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform. (Tr. 30.) As such, the ALJ found that Bruggeman was not disabled from her alleged onset date until the date of the decision. (Tr. 31.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Bruggeman's request for review. (Tr. 1-5.)


         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

         Bruggeman argues that the ALJ made the following errors requiring remand: (1) failing to adequately account for Bruggeman's non-severe impairment of depression in the RFC; (2) failing to adequately consider Listing 1.02A; (3) failing to give appropriate weight to the opinion of her treating rheumatologist, Dr. Peter Szachnowski; and (4) failing to adequately support his RFC finding of sedentary work. I will address each argument in turn.

         2.1 Failing to Consider Non-Severe Impairments in RFC

         Bruggeman argues that the ALJ erred in failing to consider her non-severe impairments of depression and/or anxiety in the RFC. The ALJ considered her medically determinable impairments of depression and anxiety both singly and in combination and determined that the impairments did not cause more than a minimal limitation in Bruggeman's ability to perform basic mental work activities. (Tr. 20.) In making this determination, the ALJ determined that Bruggeman had no limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; in ...

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