Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Garner v. Berryhill

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

August 13, 2018

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



         Stephen Richard Garner appeals the denial of his application for social security disability benefits. Garner, who previously worked as a crane operator and welder, was 49 years old on the alleged onset date of his of disability, April 8, 2014. [AR at 26, 42.][1] The administrative law judge held a hearing [AR 34-99], and issued a written decision denying Garner's claim for benefits. [AR 14-28.] The ALJ found that Garner had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, a history of hernia and urological conditions, obesity and depression. [AR at 16.] But the ALJ concluded that Garner‘s severe impairments do not conclusively establish disability by meeting or medically equaling the severity of the listed impairments. [AR at 17.] The ALJ ultimately found that Garner possessed the residual functional capacity to perform light work with certain limitations, that he was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and that he is, therefore, not disabled. [AR at 20, 26-28.]

         Garner asks me to reverse the ALJ's decision and 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 can't 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).

         When considering the evidence, “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). This means that an ALJ's decision must offer an explanation of the rationale from the evidence to his or her conclusions “sufficient to allow us, as a reviewing court, to assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford [the claimant] meaningful judicial review.” Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014).


         Garner makes three arguments for reversal of the decision against him. The first is that the ALJ erred in her evaluation of the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. S. Douglas Strycker. The second is that the ALJ erred in her handling of Garner's need for the assistance of a cane. Third, Garner challenges the ALJ's analysis of his credibility because the decision does not expressly consider his long work history as a factor. For reasons I'll explain below, the first and second challenges warrant a reversal and remand to the Commissioner for further consideration of Garner's application for benefits. The third argument is a non-starter, and in any event appears to have been abandoned by not being defended in Garner's reply brief, so it will not be further addressed.

         Treating Physician Dr. Strycker

         Dr. Strycker is board certified in Family Medicine and began treating Garner in 2007, six-and-a-half years prior to the alleged onset of disability. [AR at 435.] In support of Garner's disability application, Dr. Strycker provided two medical source statements: one dated February 12, 2015 and then, 20 months later, a second dated October 11, 2016. [AR 453, 433.] If Dr. Strycker's opinions about Garner's functional limitations had been given controlling weight, Garner would have been found to be disabled. [DE 12 at 6-7.] Instead, the ALJ gave Dr. Strycker's opinions “little weight, ” explaining that she found the two statements to be “inconsistent with one another, the objective medical findings, and the treatment pursued.” [AR at 25.]

         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). See also Gerstner v. Berryhill, 879 F.3d 257, 261 (7th Cir. 2016); McFadden v. Berryhill, 721 Fed.Appx. 501, 505 (7th Cir. 2018). An ALJ is free to discount the treating physician's opinion, but she must provide “good reasons” to explain the weight given to the opinion and support these reasons with evidence. SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 (July 2, 1996); Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011).

         Although the ALJ gave a fairly detailed explanation of her dismissal of Dr. Strycker's opinions, I find the “good reasons” standard was not met here because the ALJ apparently overlooked a substantial portion of the course of Dr. Strycker's treatment of Garner in the critical period between the alleged onset date of April 8, 2014 and the ALJ's decision on December 21, 2016. The ALJ says that Garner “had three physical examinations since the alleged onset date, all performed by his family practitioner, Dr. Douglas Strycker, M.D.” [AR at 21.] Her discussion makes clear that she refers to visits to Dr. Strycker on May 23, 2014, February 12, 2015, and October 11, 2016, the latter two dates being also the dates of Dr. Strycker's medical source statements. [Id.]

         But the Progress Notes associated with the October 11, 2016 visit refer to seven additional visits after the alleged onset date - visits on December 1, 2014, January 5, 2015, August 31, 2015, November 30, 2015, March 31, 2016, May 24, 2016 and August 25, 2016. [AR at 441.] The administrative record on file here does not appear to contain Progress Notes for each of the seven office visits the ALJ overlooked.[2] Since the record before her reflected at least that these additional examinations by Dr. Strycker occurred, and the ALJ's conclusions adverse to Garner are potentially flawed if the additional examinations are considered, the ALJ's conclusion that Dr. Strycker's opinions merited only “little weight” is not supported by substantial evidence and requires reversal and remand.

         Here's why. First, to the extent the ALJ refers to “significant gaps in the claimant's history of treatment” and to “the treatment that [Garner] has received during the adjudicated period [being merely] routine or conservative in nature, ” such conclusions are undercut by the ALJ's failure to consider the significant number of additional visits to Dr. Strycker and what might have transpired there. [AR at 23.] Second, the ALJ considered Dr. Strycker's two medical source statements to be inconsistent with one another because “the medical records do not reflect any significant change in the claimant's medical conditions during” the period between them. [AR at 26.] That may or may not ultimately prove to be true, but the fact that the ALJ was apparently unaware of five visits to Dr. Strycker in that period, and what the records of those visits might reflect, robs the conclusion of substantial support. Third, the detailed record of seven doctor's visits may also undercut the ALJ's conclusion that Dr. Strycker's “physical examinations reflect only mild findings that do not give reason for such significant limitations” as Dr. Strycker indicated in his rejected medical source statements. [AR at 25.]

         “The ALJ has the burden to develop the record and assess whether symptoms are disabling.” Cullinan v. Berryhill, 878 F.3d 598, 605 (7th Cir. 2017). Of course, the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, but “it is the ALJ who carries the burden of developing the record.” Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, 860 (7thCir. 2014). See also Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 527 (7th Cir. 2017). Regardless which party is responsible for the omission of the additional Progress Notes from the record, where “a gap in the medical record is significant and prejudicial, ” I conclude that further proceedings before the Commissioner are necessary. Warren v. Colvin, 565 Fed.Appx. 540, 544 (7th Cir. 2014).

         Medical Necessity of ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.