United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division
Baker United States Magistrate Judge.
Beth Staley appeals the Administrative Law Judge's denial
of her application for Social Security benefits. Staley
raises four issues on appeal: (1) whether the ALJ failed to
consider all of Staley's conditions at step two, (2)
whether the ALJ failed to consider all of Staley's
conditions at step three, (3) whether the Residual Functional
Capacity is supported by substantial evidence, and (4)
whether the hypothetical to the Vocational Expert failed to
include all of Staley's limitations. For the reasons set
forth below, Staley's brief in support of remand
[Filing No. 20] is granted.
alleges she became disabled in September 2008 with diabetes
mellitus, fibromyalgia, Mixed Connective Tissue Disease,
carpal tunnel syndrome, kidney disease, high blood pressure,
neuropathy, left eye blindness, celiac disease, thyroid
disease, low vitamin D, high cholesterol, and hypertension.
Staley filed a claim for disability insurance, which was
denied initially and on reconsideration. Staley requested a
hearing and testified before an ALJ. The ALJ found that
Staley was not disabled and denied her application.
[Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 14-25.]
one, the ALJ found that Staley had no substantial gainful
activity. At step two, the ALJ found that Staley has five
severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, fibromyalgia, carpal
tunnel syndrome, kidney disease, and left eye blindness.
[Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 16.] The ALJ also found
that Staley has six non-severe impairments: celiac disease,
thyroid disease, low vitamin D, high cholesterol, and
hypertension. [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 16-17.] At
step three, the ALJ determined that none of Staley's
impairments met or equaled a relevant listing.
[Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 17-18.] At step
four, the ALJ determined that Staley has the RFC to perform
“less than a full range of sedentary work” and
imposed limitations, specifically:
She can frequently handle, finger or feel with the right
upper extremity; occasionally climb ramps, stairs; no
climbing ladders or scaffolding; occasional stooping,
kneeling, crouching, crawling; reading ordinary newspaper and
book print; take care for objects approaching from the
left/rear; no unprotected heights, operating a commercial
motor vehicle; occasionally be around moving mechanical
parts; no extreme cold; occasional vibration.
[Filing No. 15-2, at ECF p. 19.] Based on the RFC
and testimony from the VE, the ALJ found that Staley could
not perform past work. At step five, the ALJ found that
Staley was capable of working as a document preparer, audit
clerk, or information clerk. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded
Staley was not disabled. The ALJ's decision became final
when the Appeals Council denied Staley's request for
review. This appeal followed.
Standard of Review
Court must uphold the ALJ's decision if substantial
evidence supports her findings. Terry v. Astrue, 580
F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009). “The substantial
evidence standard requires no more than such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Moore v. Colvin, 743
F.3d 1118, 1120 (7th Cir. 2014). The ALJ is obligated to
consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply
cherry-pick 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, 743 F.3d at 1123. The ALJ, however, need not
mention every piece of evidence, so long as she builds a
logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.
Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 362 (7th Cir. 2013).
“An ALJ must only minimally articulate his or her
justification for rejecting or accepting specific evidence of
a disability.” Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539,
545 (7th Cir. 2008). A reviewing court does not reweigh
evidence, and gives deference to the ALJ's finding.
Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).
If the court finds an error, but a reasonable ALJ would come
to the same conclusion on remand, that error is harmless.
McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 892 (7th Cir.
The ALJ failed to properly consider Staley's obesity and
MCTD at step two
argues that all of her conditions were not considered at step
two. Staley argues the ALJ failed to discuss her obesity,
MCTD, and fibromyalgia. The Commissioner contends that the
ALJ was not obligated to assess Staley's obesity and that
the ALJ's failure to discuss Staley's MTCD and
fibromyalgia was harmless errors. The Court agrees with
Staley on her first two arguments, concluding the ALJ erred
at step two.
Security Ruling 02-1p requires an ALJ to consider the effects
of obesity on a claimant's other impairments. Absent
contradiction in the record, a BMI above 30 indicates a
claimant is obese. Id. If a claimant is obviously
obese, an ALJ must consider obesity and its effects, even if
it is not asserted as an impairment. Prochaska v.
Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 736 (7th Cir. 2006) (citing SSR
02-1p). For example, if a claimant identifies a connection
between her impairments and obesity, or if the record
contains a clear connection, the ALJ must consider the
effects. See Cody v. Astrue, No. 09-3060,
2010 WL 3951987, at *8 (C.D. Ill. Oct. 6, 2010), amended
in part, No. 09-3060, 2010 WL 4876734 (C.D. Ill. Nov.
17, 2010) (“The record clearly made Cody's obesity
an issue.”). However, the ALJ's failure to consider
obesity is harmless error if a claimant does not link her
obesity directly to her other impairments, and the ALJ adopts
the limitations suggested by doctors who are aware of the
claimant's obesity. Prochaska, 454 F.3d at 736;
Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 504 (7th Cir.
record clearly demonstrates that Staley was obese, at least
from October 2013 to January 2015. According to Dr. Ramesh
Kalari's records, Staley's BMI was over 30 on October
29, 2014, July 23, 2014, April 23, 2014, and January 15,
2015. [Filing No. 15-9, at ECF pp. 95, 99,
103, 106.] According to Dr. German's
records, Staley's BMI was over 30 on October 22, 2013,
July 10, 2014, and February 11, 2014. [Filing No. 15-9,
at ECF pp. 120, 124, 129.] Nurse
practitioner Joedie Arnold's records show Staley's
BMI was over 30 on September 9, 2014, June 3, 2014, and April
15, 2014. [Filing No. 15-10, at ECF pp. 4,
7, 10.] Also, in Dr. Cynthia Bickford's
records, Staley's BMI was above 30 on May 21, 2014,
February 21, 2014, January 1, 2014, December 10, 2013, and
November 6, 2013. [Filing No. 15-11, at ECF p. 4,
8, 12, 15, 18.]
Staley's medical records also establish a link between
her symptoms and her obesity. For example, Dr. German noted
that Staley's obesity prevented her from prescribing
certain medications for Staley's fibromyalgia because of
“the potential of increasing her weight.”
[Filing No. 15-9, at ECF p. 121.] Despite this
evidence, the ALJ failed to consider how Staley's obesity
affected her other impairments. The ALJ's failure to do
so was error.
error is not harmless because the ALJ did not rely on the
medical opinions documenting Staley's obesity when
assessing her limitations in the RFC. [Filing No. 15-2, at ECF
p. 21.] The ALJ relied on Drs. Fish and Corcoran, who
did not account for Staley's obesity because she was not
obese when they examined her. When Dr. Fish examined Staley,
her BMI was 27.8, as it was when Dr. Corcoran examined her.
[Filing No. 15-3, at ECF p. 11; Filing No. 15-9,
at ECF p. 57.] Staley became obese in October 2013, but
these doctors examined her in April and July 2013. Unlike the
ALJ, neither Drs. Fish nor Corcoran had access to medical
records that indicated Staley was obese. By relying on
medical records that do not evaluate Staley's obesity,
the ALJ failed to consider its effects on her limitations.
See Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 593
(7th Cir. 2012) (“Several other physicians specifically
discussed Arnett's obesity; the ALJ, however, either
discounted the opinions of these physicians or never
mentioned them. On such a record, we cannot find harmless
error.”). Thus, the ALJ's error was not harmless.
the ALJ failed to consider Staley's MCTD. At step two,
the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has any medically
determinable impairments based on objective medical evidence.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner concedes that
the ALJ did not discuss MCTD, but argues that it was harmless
because Staley does not put forth evidence that she requires
additional restrictions in the RFC. This argument is not
persuasive. Whether Staley needs RFC restrictions is not the