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Melnick v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

October 10, 2017

KAREN L MELNICK, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Robert L. Miller, Jr. Judge, United States District Court

         Karen Melnick seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance 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). For the following reasons, the court vacates the Commissioner's decision and remands this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         Ms. Melnick's application for Disability Insurance Benefits was denied initially, on reconsideration, and after an administrative hearing at which she and a vocational expert testified. Based on the record before him, the ALJ found that Ms. Melnick had severe impairments, abdominal pain secondary to a gastrointestinal disorder and essential hypertension, but concluded that none of her impairments met or medically equaled any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1.

         The ALJ decided that Ms. Melnick had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), with limitations;[2] but could perform her past relevant work as a healthcare facility administrator. The ALJ concluded that Ms. Melnick wasn't disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and wasn't entitled to benefits.

         When the Appeals Council denied Ms. Melnick's request for review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000); Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The issue before the court isn't whether Ms. Melnick is disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that she wasn't disabled. 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 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). 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 instead must 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). While the ALJ isn't required “to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, 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 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). ALJs must “sufficiently articulate their assessment of the evidence to assure [the court] that they considered the important evidence and to enable [the court] to trace the path of their reasoning.” Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. Melnick argues that the ALJ made several errors requiring remand: (1) the ALJ didn't properly weigh the opinions of Dr. Vidya Kora, nurse practitioner Brittany Hausman, or psychologist Sharon Sacks, Ph.D.; (2) the ALJ didn't properly evaluate Ms. Melnick's depression, anxiety disorder, bacterial infection, or chronic fatigue syndrome; and (3) the ALJ's finding that Ms. Melnick could perform her past relevant work was founded on legal error and wasn't supported by substantial evidence. Ms. Melnick asks the court to either reverse the Commissioner's decision and award benefits or remand the case for further proceedings.

         A. The ALJ's Weighing of the Medical Opinions

         Ms. Melnick first argues that the ALJ didn't properly weigh the opinions of Dr. Kora, nurse practitioner Hausman, or Dr. Sacks.

         1. Dr. Vidya Kora

         The ALJ recognized that Dr. Kora, an internist, was Ms. Melnick's treating physician but gave his opinion little weight. A treating physician's opinion is to get “controlling weight” if it is both “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). “Even if an ALJ gives good reasons for not giving controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion, [he] has to decide what weight to give that opinion” and provide “good reasons” for the weight ultimately afforded to it. Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 308 (7th Cir. 2010); see also Eakin v. Astrue, 432 Fed.Appx. 607, 612 (7th Cir. 2011). The applicable regulations “guide that decision by identifying several factors that an ALJ must consider: ‘the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship; ...


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