United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
JANE A. BISHOP, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
L. Miller, Jr. Judge.
Bishop seeks judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for
disability benefits under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§ 423. The court has jurisdiction over this action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The
court reverses and remands this case to the Social Security
Administration for further proceedings.
Bishop applied for disability insurance benefits and an
administrative law judge decided that Ms. Bishop isn't
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, 42
U.S.C. § 423(d). The ALJ's decision became the
Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Counsel
denied Ms. Bishop's request for review. This appeal
Bishop awoke one day with back pain that she testified
prevented her from sitting or standing for extended periods
of time and from doing all but basic household chores. Ms.
Bishop already suffered from depression and anxiety, which
worsened as her pain and immobility encumbered her.
the five-step evaluation of disability described under 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520, the ALJ found that: 1) Ms. Bishop
isn't engaged in substantial gainful activity; 2) Ms.
Bishop has a severe impairment - degenerative disc disease of
the lumbar spine; 3) Ms. Bishop doesn't have an
impairment that meets or medically equals the severity of one
of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1; and 4) Ms. Bishop has the residual functional
capacity to perform sedentary work and is capable of her
previous work as a receptionist, reservations agent, medical
secretary, or medical transcriptionist. Having found that Ms.
Bishop could perform her previous work, the ALJ didn't
need to consider whether she could perform any work at all in
the national economy (the fifth stage of the analysis).
issue before the court isn't whether Ms. Bishop is
disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision that she isn't. Scott v.
Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011); Nelms v.
Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). Substantial
evidence 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);
Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d at 1160. In reviewing the
ALJ's decision, the court can't reweigh the evidence,
make independent findings of fact, decide credibility, or
substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner,
Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009);
Powers v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 431, 434-435 (7th Cir.
2000), but it “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.” 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 he 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 at 1160.
The ALJ hasn't done so in this case.
ALJ's analysis is defective at his step four assessment
of Ms. Bishop's residual functional capacity (the most
that Ms. Bishop can do despite her limitations). 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1). To gauge Ms.
Bishop's capacity for work, the ALJ needed to assess the
existence and extent of her pain. In assessing pain, an ALJ
first evaluates whether a claimant's impairments
“could reasonably be expected to produce the
individual's pain or other symptoms” and second,
the severity of that pain, particularly the extent to which
the claimant's “alleged functional limitations and
restrictions due to symptoms can reasonably be accepted as
consistent with the objective medical evidence and other
evidence in the case record.” SSR 96-7p. The ALJ
determined that Ms. Bishop's testimony met the first part
of this equation but not the second. (A.R. 17).
parts of the ALJ's assessment lacked the necessary
logical bridge: (1) the ALJ's decision to discount the
weight of medical opinions from Ms. Bishop's treating
physician; (2) the ALJ's decision not to include
psychological ailments in his analysis; (3) the ALJ's
determination that Ms. Bishop's statements about the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms
aren't credible; and (4) the conclusions about vocations
available to Ms. Bishop based on the vocational expert's
the “treating physician” rule, the ALJ must give
more weight to opinions from treating sources than
non-treating sources because of their ability “to
provide a detailed, longitudinal picture” of a
claimant's impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).
If the ALJ finds that a treating source's opinion on the
nature and severity of impairments “is well-supported
by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic
techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial
evidence” in the record, the treating physician's
opinion deserves “controlling weight.”
ALJ's rationale for affording little weight to the
opinion of treating physician Dr. David Miller opinion is
perfunctory. The ALJ said Dr. Miller's opinion
“lacks any degree of specificity with regard to any
functional limitations or restrictions.” (A.R. 18). But
Dr. Miller's letter is specific, saying that Ms.
Bishop's “persistent, severe pain [ ] is rated as
an 8-10 out of 10” and describing her “severe
thoracolumbar scoliosis with resulting moderate to severe
lumbar spinal stenosis.” (A.R. 347). The letter lists
the various medications Ms. Bishop takes to manage her pain.
Miller's notes support each conclusion in the letter.
Despite the pain medications that Ms. Bishop was taking,
notes from April 1, 2013 and March 8, 2013 show that Ms.
Bishop still suffered from intense pain. (A.R. 354, 360). The
medication improved the chronic pain, (A.R. 354, 360) but
there's no indication it made her able to tolerate a work
environment. The ALJ doesn't explain why Dr. Miller's
conclusions should be discounted despite his ongoing and
thorough treatment relationship with Ms. Bishop and the notes
Dr. Miller provided to support his conclusions. The ALJ's
decision to discount this opinion violates the regulation.
functional capacity analysis must include medically
determinable impairments that aren't
“severe.” § 404.1545(a)(2). The ALJ
didn't discuss Ms. Bishop's depression and anxiety in
this section even though he did so in his analysis of which
impairments are “severe.” (A.R. 15). The record
contains substantial evidence that Ms. Bishop's
depression and anxiety aren't “severe” as
defined under the act, but those conditions still exist and
so the ALJ should have considered them to the extent they
limit Ms. Bishop's residual functional capacity under 20
C.F.R. § 404.1545(c).
was no logical bridge between the evidence on the record and
the ALJ's conclusion that Ms. Bishop's
“statements concerning the intensity, persistence and
limiting effects of these symptoms aren't credible to the
extent they are inconsistent with the residual functional
capacity assessment.” (A.R. 17).
ALJ's credibility determinations “are entitled to
special deference.” Scheck v. Barnhart, 357
F.3d 697, 703 (7th Cir. 2004). This is especially so because
“[a]pplicants for disability benefits have an incentive
to exaggerate their symptoms, and an administrative law judge
is free to discount the applicant's testimony on the
basis of other evidence in the case.” Johnson v.
Barnhart, 449 F.3d 804, 805 (7th Cir. 2006). Despite
this deference, the ALJ must still provide a “logical