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Keeley v. Berryhill

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

June 26, 2018

JULIE A. KEELEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, DEPUTY COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON PLAINTIFF'S BRIEF IN SUPPORT OF APPEAL

          Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Julie Keeley appeals the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Keeley alleges that her impairments include fibromyalgia, depression, myalgia, myositis, osteoarthritis, obesity, and exhaustion. Keeley argues that (1) the Administrative Law Judge failed to articulate her application of SSR 16-3p in assessing Keeley's symptoms, and (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider Keeley's treating source opinion regarding disability. As discussed below, the Magistrate Judge agrees that Keeley's first argument is well taken, and that as a result, Keeley's request for remand [Filing No. 11] should be granted.

         II. Background

         Following the SSA's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Keeley was not disabled. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (the five-step evaluation process). At step one, the ALJ determined that Keeley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ determined that Keeley is severely impaired with fibromyalgia, degenerative joint disease of the ankles, Achilles tendinopathy, bursitis of the hips, and obesity. At step three, the ALJ determined that Keeley is not presumptively disabled because her impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, sub. pt. P, app. 1.

         Before moving on to step four, the ALJ determined that Keeley had the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of light work. In making this finding, the ALJ considered objective medical evidence. However, she found that the objective medical evidence did not substantiate Keeley's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and functionally limiting effects of her pain and other symptoms. As required by Social Security regulations when this happens, the ALJ also considered other evidence in the record and determined that Keeley had the RFC to perform less than the full range of light work.[1] At step four, the ALJ relied on Keeley's RFC and a vocational expert's testimony to determine that Keeley would be unable to perform any past relevant work. However, at step five, the ALJ determined that, despite Keeley's limitations, she can perform jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy.

         III. Discussion

         In this appeal, Keeley makes two principal arguments. First, Keeley argues that the ALJ improperly assessed her pain symptoms by failing to articulate her application of SSR 16-3p, which provides a list of factors for evaluating the severity of alleged symptoms. Specifically, Keeley asserts the ALJ erred by failing to provide an adequate explanation for her determination that the objective medical evidence is inconsistent with Keeley's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms. The Deputy Commissioner responds that the ALJ reasonably articulated and supported her assessment of Keeley's symptoms because she considered all the relevant factors set forth in SRR 16-3p. Keeley's second argument is that the ALJ failed to properly consider a treating source opinion. In support of this argument, Keeley asserts that the ALJ failed to explicitly consider each of the six factors to assign weight to a treating physician's opinion. The Deputy Commissioner responds that the ALJ properly weighed the treating source opinion because the ALJ does not need to explicitly address every regulatory factor in assessing an opinion.

         In considering these arguments, the Court exercises deference on review and determines whether “substantial evidence” supports the ALJ's decision. Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1979)). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id.The Court does not “reweigh evidence or substitute [its own] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Murphy v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 811, 815 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 362 (7th Cir. 2013)). However, the Court will remand the ALJ's decision if the reasons given by the ALJ do not “build an accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and the result. Lanigan v. Berryhill, 865 F.3d 558, 563 (7th Cir. 2017).

         A. The ALJ Failed to Properly Apply SSR 16-3p

         Keeley argues that the ALJ failed to build a logical bridge between the evidence and her conclusion that Keeley's subjective statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms are inconsistent with medical and other evidence in the record. In making her argument, Keeley asserts that the ALJ “only described in detail each of Keeley's claims under each section, without explaining why she believes these allegations are inconsistent.” [Filing No. 11, at ECF p. 14.] The Deputy Commissioner responds that the ALJ's application of the SSR 16-3p factors sufficiently supports her conclusion.

         Recitation of the SSR 16-3p factors, without specific reasons for the findings, does not constitute a proper SSR 16-3p analysis. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 942 (7th Cir. 2009). When the claimant's subjective symptoms are inconsistent with objective medical evidence, “an ALJ must consider several factors, including [1] the claimant's daily activities, [2] her level of pain or symptoms, [3] aggravating factors, [4] medication, [5] treatment, and [6] limitations, and justify the findings with specific reasons.” Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Without an adequate explanation, “neither the applicant nor subsequent reviewers will have a fair sense of how the applicant's testimony [was] weighed.” Steele, 290 F.3d at 942.

         In a series of paragraphs, the ALJ recites each of the six factors, saying she considered them, but she does not adequately explain how she arrived at her conclusion. For example, the ALJ states that she “considered the factors that precipitate and aggravate the claimant's symptoms, ” but then she merely restates Keeley's allegations: “She alleged that cold weather and rain aggravated her pain. She said that weight-bearing aggravated her Achilles tendonitis. She testified that humidity and cold weather were the aggravating factors for her pain.” [Filing No. 8-3, at ECF p. 22, R. at 95 (citations omitted).] The ALJ provides no analysis that explains how she considered the precipitating and aggravating factors. In fact, none of the ALJ's paragraphs discussing the SSR 16-3p factors has an adequate explanation or analysis for how she arrived at her conclusion. [Filing No. 8-3, at ECF p. 21-24, R. at 94-97.]

         Instead, as Keeley asserts, the ALJ provides only one sentence pertaining to her conclusion: “[Keeley's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the evidence . . . for the reasons explained in this decision.” [Filing No. 8-3, at ECF p. 24, R. at 97.] However, this vacuous explanation is insufficient. Subjective statements of pain cannot be rejected “solely because the available objective medical evidence does not substantiate [a claimant's] statements.” Williams v. Colvin, 757 F.3d 610, 615 (7th Cir. 2014); 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1529(c)(2). Moreover, the ALJ is not clear about ...


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