United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division
NORMAN A. TAPPER, III, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
ROBERT L. MILLER, Jr., District Judge.
Plaintiff Norman Tapper seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II, 42 U.S.C. § 423 et seq., of the Social Security Act. The court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, the court reverses and remands this case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Mr. Tapper filed his initial application for benefits on March 12, 2010 and asserts that he became disabled on January 19, 2010 due to several physical impairments, most notably coronary artery disease and obesity. His application for benefits was denied initially, upon reconsideration, and after an administrative hearing held on June 11, 2012 at which he was represented by counsel. At that hearing, the administrative law judge heard testimony from Mr. Tapper and vocational expert Leonard Fisher. In the written decision that followed, the ALJ found that Mr. Tapper's coronary artery disease and obesity were severe impairments, but didn't individually or in combination meet or medically equal the severity of those impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. The ALJ found that Mr. Tapper could perform his past work because that work didn't require the performance of activities precluded by his residual functional capacity. As a result, the ALJ concluded Mr. Tapper wasn't disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f) ("Your impairment(s) must prevent you from doing your past relevant work."). The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, making the decision the final determination of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. The parties agree the matter is properly before this court.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The court must affirm the Commissioner's determination if it is supported by substantial evidence, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011), which means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). The court can't re-weigh the evidence, make independent findings of fact, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009), but in reviewing the ALJ's conclusions, "[t]he court will conduct a critical review of the evidence, considering both the evidence that supports, as well as the evidence that detracts from, the Commissioner's decision, and the decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues." Briscoe v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). The ALJ isn't required "to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but must provide a logical bridge' between the evidence and the conclusions so that [the court] can assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford the claimant meaningful judicial review." Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010).
The Social Security Administration uses a sequential five-step analysis to determine if a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (evaluation of disability of adults, in general); see also Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673-674 (7th Cir. 2008). The first step considers whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that the regulations treat as conclusively disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment doesn't meet or equal a listed impairment, the evaluation continues. The fourth step assesses a claimant's residual functional capacity and ability to engage in past relevant work. A claimant who can engage in past relevant work isn't disabled. The fifth step assesses the claimant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can engage in other work. A claimant who can engage in other work isn't disabled.
Using the standard five-step evaluation for determining disability, the ALJ found that although Mr. Tapper suffered from coronary artery disease and obesity, those severe impairments didn't meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of the SSI Regulations (20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1). The ALJ then found that Mr. Tapper had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels and with the following nonexertional limitations: limited to occasionally climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; prohibited from climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and prohibited from working around unprotected heights or hazardous moving machinery. With this RFC, the ALJ concluded Mr. Tapper could perform his past work as an account executive, auto sales representative, or electronic technician and so wasn't disabled.
On appeal, Mr. Tapper challenges the ALJ's determination at step four that he had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. He argues that the record doesn't support the RFC, that the ALJ didn't properly consider the opinion evidence, and that the ALJ improperly discredited his testimony.
A. Step Four
At the fourth step of the ALJ's analysis, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity and whether, with the appropriate RFC, the claimant can engage in his or her past relevant work. The ALJ considers the extent to which the claimant's symptoms are consistent with the evidence, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(a), and considers the medical opinion evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b). The ALJ must determine whether the underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment could reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's pain or symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). If so, the ALJ then evaluates the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the symptoms to determine the extent to which they limit the claimant's functioning. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). If statements are made to this effect that aren't substantiated by objective medical evidence, the ALJ must make a credibility finding based on the entire case record. SSR 96-7p (July 2, 1996).
To begin with, the ALJ discussed Mr. Tapper's testimony: Mr. Tapper had shortness of breath if he walked 100 feet; he sometimes experienced achiness when sitting; he had tightness in his chest one to two times a week; he could stand for only 15-20 minutes; he had trouble standing; and he had aches in his legs. The ALJ concluded that Mr. Tapper's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause his symptoms, but his testimony as to his symptoms' intensity, persistence, and limiting effects wasn't credible to the extent it was inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC assessment. Mr. Tapper points out that the ALJ used the credibility boilerplate language that the court of appeals has criticized. The court cautions the ALJ against using this relatively meaningless credibility language. See Garcia v. Colvin, 741 F.3d 758, 762 (7th Cir. 2013) (ALJ used "boilerplate cart-before-the-horse credibility formula"); Bjornson v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 640, 645 (7th Cir. 2012) ( quoting Hardman v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 676, 679 (10th Cir. 2004)) ("Such boilerplate language fails to inform us in a meaningful, reviewable way of the specific evidence the ALJ considered in determining that claimant's complaints were not credible."). Because the ALJ further examined Mr. Tapper's testimony, the use of the boilerplate language isn't dispositive of the credibility issue.
Mr. Tapper's overarching complaint is that the ALJ didn't base his RFC assessment on the objective medical evidence or the medical opinions of record. The Commissioner argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. "An ALJ must evaluate all relevant evidence when determining an applicant's RFC, including evidence of impairments that are not severe." Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 591 (7th Cir. 2012) ( citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)). The court will uphold the ALJ's decision as to the appropriate RFC "if the evidence supports the decision and the ALJ explains his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful review. Id. at 591-592. The court finds the ALJ articulated his reasoning and cited evidence from the record to support his conclusion. Nevertheless, the ALJ glossed over and ignored relevant evidence, leaving the court unable ...