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Dale v. Saul

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

August 29, 2019

ALYCE C. DALE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Alyce Dale has appealed from an administrative law judge's denial of her application for Social Security disability benefits. In doing so, she claims that the ALJ committed two errors which require a reversal of his decision. First, Dale says that the ALJ improperly “played doctor” when he reviewed and considered new medical evidence that came into existence after Dale filed her application, without any professional (i.e. medical) assistance. Second, she says that the ALJ was required to but did not consider medical expert opinion as to whether Dale's combined impairments medically equaled two specific Social Security disability listings. I agree that the ALJ's decision to review and opine on Dale's new medical evidence and recent conditions without the benefit of any review by an additional medical professional was error. Consequently, the ALJ's decision will be reversed and this matter remanded so that such further medical opinion evidence may be obtained and considered by an ALJ.

         Background

         Alyce Dale applied for disability benefits on April 11, 2014, claiming that as of November 1, 2012, she was disabled. [A.R.[1] 10.] Her initial claims were denied and on February 10, 2017, she appeared before an ALJ through a video hearing. [Id.] On March 29, 2017, the ALJ issued his written decision which once again denied Dale benefits, and after exhausting her administrative appeals, Dale has sought review before me. [A.R. 7.]

         In the written decision, the ALJ determined that Dale had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of her lumbar spine, headaches, diabetes mellitus, and osteoarthritis of the hips. [A.R. 12.] In addition, Dale suffered from pituitary adenoma, i.e. a tumor on her pituitary gland. [Id.] That condition and its associated impairments were not discovered for more than a year after Dale first applied for benefits. [A.R. 16.] In June 2015, Dale had complaints of dizziness, ear pain, and headaches and blurry vision. [Id.] In late July/early August 2015, she underwent an MRI and a tumor on her pituitary gland was discovered. The tumor was removed that October and she subsequently underwent radiation therapy. And while subsequent MRIs showed that the tumor had not returned, Dale continued to report persistent headaches (as of September 2016) as well as seizures, which were partially treated with medication. [A.R. 17.]

         In evaluating these impairments, the ALJ determined that Dale did not meet any of the applicable social security listings for disability. Specifically, the ALJ examined listing 1.02 (dysfunctions of a joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 11.02 (convulsive epilepsy), and 11.03 (non-convulsive epilepsy). In doing so, the ALJ relied on the opinions of state agency medical and psychological consultants. [A.R. 14.] Notably, those opinions were drafted in December 2014, a full seven months prior to Dale's pituitary adenoma diagnosis and the appearance of symptoms from it. The ALJ did not order a re-review of Dale's medical records prior to determining whether she met the epilepsy-related listings, even though Dale's seizures did not begin to occur until around the time her pituitary adenoma was discovered. [A.R. 15.] Nonetheless, the ALJ determined Dale did not meet or equal any of those listings and proceeded to the next step of the review process.

         At the next step, the ALJ determined Dale's residual functional capacity (RFC). He determined that Dale should be limited to light work, subject to several additional limitations. Those were: lifting up to 20 pounds occasionally, up to 10 pounds frequently; carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sitting, standing or walking for six hours, pushing and pulling as much as she could lift or carry- subject to the 20- and 10-pound restrictions previously mentioned. [A.R. 15.] He also found that she could climb stairs and ramps just fine, but never could climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He also found she could stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl, but never work on unprotected heights, around moving mechanical parts, or operate a commercial vehicle. [Id.]. The ALJ based this RFC upon his review of Dale's testimony and submitted evidence, which he labeled as a careful consideration of the entire record. [Id.] I won't belabor the point or repeat the ALJ's description of the evidence contained within his written decision. [See A.R. 15-19.]

         Then, as is often the case in these types of cases, this RFC and some additional hypothetical questions were posed to a vocational expert (VE) who testified whether or not such a hypothetical person with Dale's RFC could likely find gainful employment. The ALJ determined that Dale could perform her past relevant work as a Fast Food Worker and Industrial Cleaner, as those jobs are defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. [A.R. 19-20.] He further found she could perform the jobs of Housekeeping Cleaner, Bakery Worker Conveyor Line and Poultry Eviscerator, all of which existed in sufficient numbers in the national economy. As a result, the ALJ found that Dale was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and its regulations.

         Discussion

         In a Social Security disability appeal, my role as district court judge is limited. I don't start from scratch and determine whether a claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. Instead, my review of the ALJ's findings is deferential, to determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision's factual determinations are supported by substantial evidence. Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 310 (7th Cir. 2012). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, they are conclusive. Id.; 42 U.S.C. §405(g). The Supreme Court has said that “substantial evidence” means more than a “scintilla” of evidence, but less than a preponderance of the evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). “Evidence is substantial if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support the conclusion.” Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). My review is guided by the principle that while “[t]he ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence or testimony presented, but must provide a ‘logical bridge' between the evidence and the conclusions so that [I] can assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford the claimant meaningful judicial review.” Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010). Given this modest standard, the review is a light one, but of course I cannot “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). “[T]he decision cannot stand if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003)).

         Dale's main argument is that given that she began to experience symptoms and was diagnosed with a tumor on her pituitary gland during the review process, and, importantly, after her file was reviewed by the state agency physicians, the ALJ's opinion is inherently deficient. The point is not just that her medical condition and impairments changed after filing, but that they did so dramatically and that no state agency physician conducted a re-review of her records after her pituitary adenoma was diagnosed. This she says, led to an improper consideration of her medical files by the ALJ in the first instance in which the ALJ substituted his own lay opinions for what should have been the opinions of professionals.

         The Commissioner's main retort to this is that additional medical opinion was not necessary. Specifically, he says:

[T]he ALJ acknowledged the point that the State agency medical consultant issued their opinions before Plaintiff's pituitary tumor surfaced. In so doing, the ALJ explained he included in the RFC additional postural and environmental limitations to accommodate the evidence related to the tumor and its effects, as well as hearing testimony.

[DE 18 at 7.] And therein lies the problem. The ALJ reviewed the objective medical evidence and testimony relating to Dale's pituitary tumor and its resulting impacts on her abilities. The ALJ then formed his own opinions based on that review and determined Dale was not disabled. That's different than reviewing underlying medical records to see whether they support the conclusions or opinion testimony from a medical professional being offered by a claimant. One is evaluating an opinion, the other is forming an opinion in the first instance. The former is the ALJ's task in cases like these, while the latter is impermissibly playing doctor. “[A]n ALJ ...


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