United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
P. SIMON, JUDGE
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.] 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.]
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).
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).
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.
Physician Dr. Strycker
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.]
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).
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.]
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. 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
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.]
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.
Necessity of ...