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Bair v. Berryhill

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

September 14, 2018

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



         Nancy A. Bair was born in the Philippines, came to the United States in 1985 and later became a U.S. citizen. [AR at 40-41.][1] Bair worked as a machine operator for American Rubber for 20 years until she quit on January 9, 2014 at age 53. [DE 9 at 42; DE 11 at 3.] Before she quit, Bair applied for disability benefits alleging that she became disabled as of January 1, 2014. After a hearing, an administrative law judge issued a decision finding that Bair retains the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with certain non-exertional limitations accommodating Bair's severe impairments of hearing loss, arthritis in her right hand, and tendonitis in her right shoulder. [AR at 15, 16.] Bair appeals the denial of benefits.

         Bair asks me to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand 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).


         Bair raises two issues in this appeal. First, she contends that the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to the medical opinions of Dr. Caroline Bjonback, Bair's treating physician. Bair's other argument for reversal is that the ALJ's determination about Bair's credibility is not supported by substantial evidence. [DE 11 at 15.] I will take up each issue in turn.

         Treating Physician Bjonback

         The opinion from Dr. Bjonback is contained in a “Medical Source Statement of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities” that Dr. Bjonback completed on October 7, 2015. [AR 309-314.] The document is essentially a checklist of the things that Bair can and cannot do. There are places in the Statement for the doctor to provide additional information in the form of a narrative, and Dr. Bjonback helpfully did so on a couple of occasions. The Statement reflects that Bair's standing, walking and sitting are not affected by her impairments. [AR at 311.] In the check-the-box portions of the Statement, Dr. Bjonback indicates that Bair is unable to lift more than 10 pounds and is limited in pushing and pulling with her upper extremities, but she leaves blank the section asking for “medical/clinical finding(s)” that support these conclusions. [AR at 311-313.] Dr. Bjonback checks boxes indicating that Bair's reaching, handling and fingering are limited, but includes these explanatory comments:

Exam is inconclusive. Does not hold against resistance possibly due to pain. No. swelling or localized tenderness. Shoulder is painful at extremes of abduction and flexion, but no abnormality on exam. X-rays ordered to check for underlying arthritis.

[AR at 313.] On the next page, her remarks continue:

Has not had this condition treated, so it is unknown if it is reversible. I am going to refer her to ortho for treatment. May need therapy. Should not do jobs with repetitive work.

[AR at 314.]

         Treating this Statement as Dr. Bjornback's medical opinion about Bair's functional limitations, the ALJ gave the opinion “little weight, ” citing Dr. Bjornback's treatment notes of the same date. [AR at 20.] More specifically, the ALJ first said the opinion “reflects the subjective reports of the claimant rather than objective findings.” [Id.] This appears to be borne out by the treatment notes of October 7, 2015, in which the doctor reflects Bair's complaints that she cannot lift her 18 month old grandchild, lift a gallon of milk, or reach above her head. [AR at 354.] But Dr. Bjornback reports that on examining Bair:

I could not find any abnormality of her hand or wrist. She could not hold any of the joints against resistance, but I'm not sure if she could understand my directions[2] and would have wanted her to do. Shoulder found pain at the extremes of passive range of motion of ...

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