United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division
ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S REQUEST FOR REMAND
Baker United States Magistrate Judge
N. Suttles, M.D. opined that Plaintiff should “[a]void
sharp changes in position as turning and reaching or reaching
from overhead things that are >20 lbs.” [Filing
No. 9-7, at p. 43.] The Administrative Law Judge adopted
Dr. Suttles's opinion. However, the ALJ found Plaintiff
was capable of frequently reaching. Thus, there appears to be
a contradiction between Dr. Suttles's opinion that
Plaintiff should avoid reaching and the ALJ's finding
that Plaintiff can frequently reach. Still, Dr. Suttles's
opinion is not clear, and it is possible that Dr.
Suttles's opinion and the ALJ's conclusion can
coexist. But this opinion is crucial, and the Court cannot be
sure the ALJ understood it. Therefore, the Court remands the
decision so the ALJ can seek clarification from Dr. Suttles.
sought disability insurance benefits, alleging disability
beginning in November 2014. Her application was denied
initially and upon review. Plaintiff appeals this decision.
In evaluating Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ used the Social
Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation
process. See20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (explaining
the five-step process). At step one, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity
since her alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ determined
that Plaintiff was severely impaired with degenerative disc
disease, scoliosis, reactive airway disease, obesity,
fibromyalgia, connective tissue disease, breast cancer with
related treatment, and bipolar disorder. At step three, the
ALJ determined that neither Plaintiff's impairments nor a
combination of her impairments met or medically equaled the
criteria of any listing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not
meet or medically equal a listing, the ALJ proceeded to
determine Plaintiff's RFC before considering step four.
An individual's RFC is his or her ability to do physical
and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite
limitations from his or her impairments. To determine a
claimant's RFC, ALJs consider all of a claimant's
impairments regardless of the severity level. 20 C.F.R.
404.1520(e), 404.1545, 416.920(e), and 416.945; SSR 96-8p.
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is limited to light work,
including “frequent . . . reaching.” [Filing
No. 9-2, at p. 17.] The ALJ further found Plaintiff
could sustain the attention and concentration necessary to
carry out work-like tasks with reasonable pace and
persistence and occasional interaction with the public,
coworkers, and supervisors.
on a vocational expert's testimony, at step four, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff did not have the RFC to perform the
requirements of her past relevant work. [Filing No. 9-2,
at p. 20.] At step five, considering her RFC, work
experience, age, and education, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff could perform other work that existed in
significant numbers in the national economy. The ALJ
determined that Plaintiff could work as a collator operator,
router, or an information clerk.
presents two issues on appeal. The first concerns Dr.
Suttles's opinion and the second concerns Plaintiff's
concentration-related limitations. Plaintiff argues that the
ALJ departed from the medical opinion of Dr.
Suttles-Plaintiff's treating physician-regarding
Plaintiff's ability to reach. Plaintiff and Defendant
agree that Dr. Suttles's medical opinion is adequately
supported. Where the parties disagree, however, is whether
the ALJ accurately interpreted and applied Dr. Suttles's
opinion in assessing Plaintiff's RFC. In support of her
argument, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ misinterpreted Dr.
Suttles's opinion while purporting to adopt the findings,
failed to explain why the opinion was not adopted,
inaccurately assessed Plaintiff's RFC, and failed to
build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and
his conclusions. In response, Defendant asserts that the ALJ
“reasonably translated” Dr. Suttles's
opinion. [Filing No. 24, at p. 10.]
her concentration-related limitations, Plaintiff argues that
the ALJ failed to account for her work-pace limitation in the
RFC and failed to include any pace-based limitation in the
hypothetical questions to the VE. She further argues that the
ALJ departed from the opinions of state agency physicians,
Drs. Kennedy and Shipley, that she had moderate difficulty
maintaining concentration for extended periods of time, and
the consultative-examiner's opinion that she had
difficulty managing her personal funds. Defendant responds by
arguing that “the record contains a thorough
explanation of the state agency doctors' rationale for
their opinions, and the ALJ's RFC includes all of the
restrictions opined by Drs. Kennedy and Shipley” in
regard to Plaintiff's moderate difficulty maintaining
concentration. [Filing No. 24, at p. 14.] Defendant, relying
on Cihlar v. Berryhill, 706, Fed.Appx. 881, 883 (7th
Cir. 2017), further argues that the ALJ explicitly explained
the distinction between his finding-that Plaintiff had
moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, and
pace-and his RFC finding that Plaintiff could manage simple,
review, the Court exercises deference and evaluates whether
the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence,
which is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995).
This means that substantial evidence is “more than a
mere scintilla but may be less than a preponderance” of
evidence. Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th
Cir. 2007). To sufficiently support his decision, the ALJ
must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence
to his conclusion. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863,
872 (7th Cir. 2000).
Dr. Suttles's medical opinion
argues that the ALJ failed to adopt Dr. Suttles's
potentially disabling opinion, which states, “Avoid
sharp changes in position as turning and reaching or reaching
from overhead things that are >20lbs.” [Filing No.
9-7, at p. 43.] In his RFC assessment, the ALJ concluded
Plaintiff was capable of “frequent . . .
reaching.” [Filing No. 9-2 at p. 17.] Social
Security Rulings 85-15 and 83-10 define frequent reaching as
extending the hands and arms in any direction for one-third
to two-thirds of the time, respectively. In contrast,
“avoid” means to refrain from. Accordingly, the
ALJ seemingly adopted two incompatible conclusions.
argues that Dr. Suttles's conclusion and the ALJ's
conclusion regarding Plaintiff's reaching are compatible.
Defendant further argues that “avoid” in Dr.
Suttles's opinion only applies to the “sharp
changes in position” section of the opinion. However,
this would leave “as turning and reaching” as a
dependent and incomplete clause with no place or meaning
within Dr. Suttles's opinion. ...