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Kristin M. v. Saul

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

August 6, 2019

KRISTIN M., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S REQUEST FOR REMAND

          Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         Shivonne 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.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff 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, Appendix 1.

         Since 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.

         Relying 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.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff 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.]

         Regarding 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, routine work.

         On 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).

         A. Dr. Suttles's medical opinion

         Plaintiff 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.[1] Accordingly, the ALJ seemingly adopted two incompatible conclusions.

         Defendant 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. ...


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