United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Ritchie seeks judicial review of a final decision
denying his application for disability insurance benefits
under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §
423. The court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court heard argument on July 18
and now vacates the Commissioner's decision and remands
this case for further proceedings consistent with this
Ritchie's application for disability insurance benefits
was denied initially, on reconsideration, and after an
administrative hearing at which he and a vocational expert
testified. Based on the record before her, the ALJ found that
Mr. Ritchie had severe impairments-diabetes mellitus with
neuropathy in the bilateral hands and feet and obesity-and
non-severe impairments-back and neck impairments, hepatitis
C, and hypertension-but concluded that none of his
impairments met or medically equaled any of the impairments
listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.
decided that Mr. Ritchie had the residual functional capacity
to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1567(b), with limitations,  and was able to perform his past
relevant work as an automobile painter. The ALJ concluded
that he wasn't disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act and wasn't entitled to benefits. When the
Appeals Council denied Mr. Ritchie's request for review,
the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final
decision. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000);
Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir.
2010). This appeal followed.
Standard of Review
issue before the court isn't whether Mr. Ritchie is
disabled, but whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision that he 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 at 1160. 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 ex rel. Taylor 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 at 1160. 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
Ritchie presents five issues for review: (1) whether
substantial evidence supported the ALJ's step two
determination that Mr. Ritchie's neck and lumbar
impairments weren't severe; (2) whether the ALJ properly
determined that Mr. Ritchie's impairments didn't meet
or medically equal a listing; (3) whether the ALJ erred in
crafting her residual functional capacity determination; (4)
whether the ALJ's credibility determination is patently
wrong; and (5) whether the Appeals Council erred when
considering newly submitted evidence. Mr. Ritchie asks the
court to either reverse the Commissioner's decision and
award benefits or remand the case for further proceedings.
Ritchie first argues that the ALJ erred at step two of the
sequential evaluation of disability when she determined that
Mr. Ritchie's neck and lumbar impairments were
“non-severe.” Mr. Ritchie argues that the ALJ
didn't address evidence in the record that could have
supported a finding that those impairments were severe.
two, an ALJ considers the medical severity of the
claimant's impairment; the burden was on Mr. Ritchie to
show that he had a “severe impairment.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520. The step two inquiry is “a de
minimis screening for groundless claims” and
“[a]n impairment is not severe only if it is a slight
abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on the
ability to do basic work activities.” Meuser v.
Colvin, 838 F.3d 905, 910 (7th Cir. 2016) (internal
evidence in the record that Mr. Ritchie's neck and
“major back surgery” hadn't solved his spinal
issues and that he suffered ongoing pain, the ALJ, citing
evidence from a consultative examiner and a treating
physician, found that Mr. Ritchie's neck and lumbar
impairments-also described as spinal disorders in the
record-were non-severe. The ALJ didn't acknowledge or
discuss the opinions of two state agency physicians-Drs. M.
Brill and Fernando Montoya-that Mr. Ritchie's spinal
disorder was severe. The ALJ also didn't address a report
from Dr. Harley Yoder, one of Mr. Ritchie's treating
physicians, describing the severity of his spinal disorder.
Dr. Yoder opined that “a fragment of his vertebra has
almost severed his sciatic nerve . . . [causing] residual
nerve damage . . . [and] chronic pain in his neck and his
lower back.” [Doc. No. 15 at 277]. Dr. Yoder opined
that there are no surgical options to address Mr.
Ritchie's aliments, noted that he was in significant
pain, and directed him not to work for at least a month.
opinions of Drs. Brill, Montoya, and Yoder regarding Mr.
Ritchie's spinal disorder-none addressed by the ALJ-are
sufficient to meet step two's de minimis
screening and demonstrate that this impairment was more than
a slight abnormality with no more than a minimal effect on
his ability to do basic work activities.
Commissioner notes that step two is merely a threshold
requirement and argues that the court should find that the
ALJ's error was harmless because she found at least one
severe impairment, proceeded to the remaining steps of the
evaluation process, and considered his spinal disorder when
fashioning a residual functional capacity determination.
Cf. Castile v. Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926-927 (7th
Cir. 2010). The ALJ met the first two requirements-she found
that Mr. Ritchie's diabetes mellitus with neuropathy and
obesity were severe impairments and proceeded in the
sequential disability process.
support her argument that the ALJ properly considered Mr.
Ritchie's spinal disorder at step four, the Commissioner
points to portions of the ALJ's opinion including
boilerplate language saying she considered all of Mr.
Ritchie's impairments when determining his residual
functional capacity. But at step four in her opinion, she
expressly stated that Mr. Ritchie's “residual
functional capacity is based upon the evidence of the
claimant's diabetes mellitus and obesity, ” [Doc.
No. 15 at 21]. And even if the court agreed that the
ALJ's error at step two was harmless, remand still would
be required because the ALJ didn't consider the opinions
of Drs. Brill, Montoya, and Yoder regarding Mr. Ritchie's
spinal disorder at any point in her opinion, despite the
requirement that she consider all relevant evidence,
especially medical reports of treating physicians. See
Myles v. Astrue, ...