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Staley v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division

December 28, 2016

BETH STALEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Background

         Staley 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.]

         At step 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.

         II. Standard of Review

         The 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. 2011).

         III. Discussion

         A. The ALJ failed to properly consider Staley's obesity and MCTD at step two

         Staley 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.

         Social 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. 2004).

         The 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.

         The 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.[1] [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.

         Additionally, 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 question ...


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