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Lenczewski v. Berryhill

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

June 12, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Brenda Lenzcewski appeals the denial of disability insurance benefits by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Lenczewski is a 56 year old woman who worked as a press operator in the 1990's, and later as a school aide/dishwasher for the South Bend School Corporation. In October 2013, she filed a claim with Social Security alleging that she became disabled as of June 1, 2011, at age 49. [AR at 141.][1] She later amended the claimed onset date to May 20, 2012. [AR at 168.] Among the conditions she claimed limited her ability to work were lupus, a previous open heart surgery for mitral valve replacement and subdural hematomas. [AR at 173.]

         Lenzcewski had a hearing before an administrative law judge on December 4, 2015, at which Lenzcewski appeared with her attorney and gave testimony. [AR at 28-56.] The ALJ issued a written decision denying Lenzcewski's claim for benefits on January 5, 2016. [AR 11-20.] The ALJ found that Lenzcewski has severe impairments of systemic lupus erythematosus and discoid lupus, status post mitral valve replacement, seizure disorder and anemia. [AR at 14.] The ALJ concluded that Lenzcewski‘s severe impairments do not conclusively establish disability by meeting or medically equaling the severity of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. [Id.] The ALJ found that Lenzcewski possessed the residual functional capacity to perform medium work, that she was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and that Lenzcewski is not disabled. [AR at 15, 19-20.]

         Lenzcewski asks me to reverse the ALJ's decision or remand the case for further proceedings by the Social Security Administration. My review of the ALJ's decision is deferential. I must affirm it if it is supported by substantial evidence, meaning “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). I cannot reweigh the evidence or substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ. Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015). But these standards do not mean that I “will simply rubber-stamp the Commissioner's decision without a critical review of the evidence.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). “In rendering a decision, an ALJ is not required to provide a complete and written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence, but ‘must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.'” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015), quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005). Lenzcewski makes two arguments in support of her appeal.

         Issue One: Medical Opinion Evidence

         Lenzcewski first contends that the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the opinion of her treating rheumatologist, Dr. Alan Birnbaum of Arthritis Care of Michiana. The opinion evidence in question takes the form of Dr. Birnbaum's February 10, 2015 Attending Physician Statement completed for Lenczewski's long-term disability insurer. [DE 11 at 1179-1181.] Dr. Birnbaum concluded that within an 8-hour workday, Lenczewski had no tolerance for standing, could sit for 2 hours at a time and walk for 1 hour. [AR at 1179.] In his opinion, Lenczewski could occasionally carry or lift less than 10 pounds but never any greater weight, could not push or pull with her hands or engage in fine manipulation. [AR at 1179, 1180.] The ALJ said Birnbaum's “statements have been given little weight as they were offered in the context of whether Claimant was able to perform her previous part time work as a school aide, ” and that “nothing in the treatment notes indicate the level of disability that is described on these forms.” [AR at 18.]

         Under the regulations that apply to claims filed before March 27, 2017, a treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques” and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). Lenczewski's briefing is short on substance. Lenczewski merely asserts that “Dr. Birnbaum's opinion is well-supported by the above medical evidence.” [DE 17 at 17.] This “above” is a wave of the hand to the brief's earlier 10-page review of the medical evidence. The conclusory assertion that Dr. Birnbaum's opinion is “well-supported” fails to offer any helpful analysis or discussion relating the various elements of the opinion to supporting medical findings. “[U]ndeveloped arguments are waived.” Putnam v. Colvin, 651 Fed.Appx. 538, 542-43 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 708 (7th Cir. 2013)). To effectively challenge the ALJ's statement that nothing in the medical record supports Dr. Birnbaum's conclusions about her limitations, Lenczewski needed to point to medical records that did in fact support his findings. She does not.

         The Commissioner responds by citing treatment notes (cited by the ALJ) reflecting that Lenczewski had no tenderness or swelling in her joints, a normal gait and stance, full range of motion in her fingers with good grip bilaterally, and the ability to lift 40 pounds. [DE 18 at 4; AR at 1 7.] In her reply, although Lenczewski argues that reliance on these records is “cherry-picking, ” she again fails to cite any medical records to support her perfunctory argument that there were “many other office visits where she exhibited symptoms of her lupus and other conditions.” [DE 19 at 2.] Lenczewski's challenge to the ALJ's rejection of Dr. Birnbaum's opinion is unsupported and unpersuasive, and therefore fails.

         Issue Two: The ALJ's RFC Assessment

         RFC is the disability term for the description of what a claimant is able to do despite functional limitations from medical impairments, and represents the Commissioner's determination of the individual's “capacity to perform work-related physical and mental activities.” POMS DI 24510.001(A)(1). Here the ALJ's RFC assessment found that Lenzcewski:

• can lift or carry up to 25 pounds frequently and 50 pounds occasionally;
• can sit, stand and walk 6 hours of an 8-hour work day;
• can't climb ladders ropes or scaffolds; and
• should avoid exposure to hazards including unprotected heights, moving machinery ...

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