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Csillag v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

October 3, 2017

DAWN R. CSILLAG, Plaintiff,


          Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge Southern District of Indiana

         Plaintiff Dawn R. Csillag applied for disability insurance benefits in July 2013, alleging disability beginning on June 26, 2013. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration.Csillag, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on December 2, 2014. On February 20, 2015, the ALJ issued her decision, finding Csillag not disabled.

         I. Background

         At step one, the ALJ found that Csillag has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. [Filing No. 8-2 at ECF p. 18.] At step two, the ALJ found that Csillag has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, Morton's Neuroma, and plantar fasciitis of both feet. [Id.] The ALJ also determined that Csillag has a non-severe cardiac impairment. [Id. at 18-19.] At step three, the ALJ concluded that no impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listing. [Id. at 19.]

         At step four, the ALJ found that Csillag has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, except she can never climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she can occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; she can have occasional exposure to wetness and slippery, uneven surfaces; and she requires an assistive device to walk. [Filing No. 8-2 at ECF pp. 19-20.] Based on this RFC finding, Csillag's age, education, and work experience, and testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Csillag was able to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy such as document preparer, ticket checker, and final assembler. [Id. at 25-26.] Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Csillag was not disabled. [Id. at 26.] The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and this appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court must uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and applies the correct legal standard. Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 526 (7th Cir. 2017).

         III. Discussion

         Csillag raises three main arguments on appeal, but the first is outcome determinative, so it is the only one discussed in this decision.[1] Csillag argues that the ALJ failed to explain the finding that Csillag's impairments do not meet or equal Listing 1.04 and failed to obtain a medical opinion on the issue of whether Csillag equals that listing. The Magistrate Judge agrees that the ALJ erred at step three by failing to obtain an updated medical opinion on medical equivalence and this error requires a remand.[2]

         An ALJ must consider a medical expert's opinion on the issue of whether a claimant's impairment equals a listing. Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 670 (7th Cir. 2004). The record contains two separate Disability Determination Transmittal reports signed by state agency medical physicians on August 23, 2013 and October 28, 2013. [Filing No. 8-3 at ECF pp. 2-3.] The physicians reviewed Csillag's medical records and concluded that she was not disabled. The ALJ may properly rely on the opinions of these medical experts in deciding whether Csillag meets or equals a listing. See Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). However, under a Social Security Ruling in effect at the time of the ALJ's decision, but since rescinded, an ALJ “must obtain an updated medical opinion from a medical expert ... [w]hen additional medical evidence is received that ... may change the State agency medical … consultant's finding that the impairment(s) is not equivalent in severity to any impairment in the Listing of Impairments.” SSR 96-6p.

         Csillag cites several pieces of medical evidence that post-date the state agency physicians' findings that she did not meet or equal a listing:

(1) An August 31, 2013 MRI of her lumbar spine which showed, among other things, generalized disc bulge and moderate disc protrusion at ¶ 5-S1 with mild left SI impingement and minimal lower lumbar facet degeneration. [Filing No. 8-12 at ECF pp. 45-46].
(2) Her treating physician Dr. Kurt Hull's record from September 13, 2013, noting that Csillag's MRI showed “degenerative disc disease at ¶ 5-S1 with nerve root involvement” and that her symptoms, including fatigue, low back muscle pain, stiffness in the morning, and tingling and numbness in both legs “are consistent with this diagnosis.” [Filing No. 8-12 at ECF p. 344.] Csillag was treated with a lumbar epidural steroid injection. [Filing No. 8-13 at ECF p. 21.]
(3) A November 22, 2013 MRI of Csillag's cervical spine showed mild to possibly moderate central spinal stenosis at ΒΆ 5-6 with possible mild chronic impingement of exiting left C6 nerve root and minimal to possibly mild central spinal stenosis ...

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