United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
BRANDY E. FLORENCE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S BRIEF IN SUPPORT OF APPEAL
TIM A. BAKER, Magistrate Judge.
Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Brandy Florence's appeal of the Administrative Law Judge's denial of her application for supplemental security income. Her alleged impairments include lupus, obesity, and asthma. Florence's appeal raises four issues: (1) whether the ALJ erred in finding Florence not disabled under listing 14.02; (2) whether the ALJ erred in failing to summon a medical advisor; (3) whether the ALJ erred in his credibility determination; and (4) whether the ALJ erred in finding Florence capable of performing work in the national economy. For the reasons set forth below, Florence's brief in support of appeal [Filing No. 24] is granted and the ALJ's decision is reversed and remanded.
A. Standard of Review
The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a plaintiff is disabled: whether the plaintiff (1) is currently unemployed, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals one of the impairments listed as disabling in the Commissioner's regulations, (4) is unable to perform her past relevant work, and (5) is unable to perform any other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009). "An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled." Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000) ( quoting Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n. 2 (7th Cir. 1985)). "A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled." Id.
The Court must uphold the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports his findings. Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 361-62 (7th Cir. 2013). "Although a mere scintilla of proof will not suffice to uphold an ALJ's findings, the substantial evidence standard requires no more than such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. The ALJ is obligated to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherrypick facts that support a finding of nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010). If evidence contradicts the ALJ's conclusions, the ALJ must confront that evidence and explain why it was rejected. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1123 (7th Cir. 2014). However, the ALJ need not mention every piece of evidence, so long as he builds a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion. Pepper, 712 F.3d at 362.
B. Disability finding
Florence claims that the ALJ erred at step three in finding that her lupus impairment did not meet or medically equal listing 14.02. Florence argues that the ALJ's decision never mentioned her chronic vaginitis and largely ignored her musculoskeletal problems. [Filing No. 24, at ECF p. 16.] The Commissioner asserts that Florence did not prove that her impairments met the requirements of listing 14.02. [Filing No. 25, at ECF p. 5-6.]
At step three, the ALJ identified the specific listing for lupus, stated its elements, and concluded that the medical evidence did not document the impairment. [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 17.] However in making this finding, he did not discuss any of Florence's treatments for chronic vaginitis, which Florence argues would be a body organ affected by systemic lupus erythematosus under listing 14.02. Medical evidence reveals that Florence visited her primary physician Dr. Chrystal Anderson several times due to vaginal discharge. [Filing No. 13-8, at ECF p. 4; Filing No. 13-10, at ECF p. 42; Filing No. 13-11, at ECF p. 8, 11-13, 15, 22-23.] Similarly, Florence had several gynecological tests reporting the possible presence of bacterial vaginosis. [Filing No. 13-8, at ECF p. 95; Filing No. 13-10, at ECF p. 8, 36.] Not only did the ALJ fail to discuss evidence of Florence's chronic and painful vaginitis, but he also failed to even mention its existence in the record. This was in error as her vaginitis is a reoccurring condition that Florence argues supports a disability finding.
Moreover, the ALJ failed to discuss the reports from Florence's treating physician, Dr. Anderson, as they relate to Florence's lupus. The ALJ makes only two references to Dr. Anderson's opinion, neither of which discussed much of significance as it relates to Florence's claimed disabilities. The ALJ's first mention of Dr. Anderson noted that, "Chrystal Anderson, M.D., documented on September 20, 2011, that the claimant's weight was 247 pounds and her height was 5 feet and 7.5 inches with a body mass index of 48.23/kg/m2." [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 17.] The ALJ's second reference to Dr. Anderson indicated that "Dr. Anderson is her primary care physician, and she meets with her approximately two or three times a month. She detailed that one session usually lasts fifteen to twenty minutes with her." [Filing No. 13-2, at ECF p. 20.] Dr. Anderson frequently examined Florence noting pain and swelling due to lupus, vaginal discharge and odor, as well as asthma flare-ups. [ See e.g., Filing No. 13-11, at ECF p. 12, 15, 20-23, 25, 28; Filing No. 13-12, at ECF p. 5, 18, 20.] The ALJ makes no mention of Dr. Anderson's reports, despite the fact that these reports could support a finding of a musculoskeletal impairment and chronic vaginitis to satisfy listing 14.02's requirements.
The Commissioner argues that there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding. The Commissioner's argument is not without merit. Consultative examiner Drs. Kelli Sorg and A. Shahem Kawji reported no abnormal findings on examination. [Filing No. 13-8, at ECF p. 59-62; Filing No. 13-7, at ECF p. 45-47.] Similarly, Dr. David Batts was unable to find anything on examination that suggested active lupus and was uncertain that lupus was the cause of Florence's pain. [Filing No. 13-8, at ECF p. 32.] Agency doctors J. Sands and Mangala Hasanadka found Florence capable of sedentary work. [Filing No. 13-8, at ECF p. 69-76, 103.] However, the ALJ failed to discuss evidence, particularly Dr. Anderson's medical reports, that supports a disability finding. By ignoring Dr. Anderson's findings, the ALJ cherry-picked facts that supported his conclusion that Florence was not disabled while overlooking evidence that discussed, among other medical issues, Florence's chronic vaginitis and musculoskeletal problems. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010) ("An ALJ has the obligation to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherry-pick facts that support a finding of non-disability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding."). This was in error and remand is appropriate on this issue.
C. Failure to summon a medical advisor
Florence also argues that the ALJ should have summoned a medical advisor to testify as to whether Florence met the requirements of a listed impairment. According to Florence, the ALJ erroneously relied on state agency physician opinions that did not consider all of the medical evidence in the record. Instead, the ALJ based ...