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Clark v. Saul

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

November 6, 2019

KENDRA M. CLARK, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Kendra Clark has appealed from an administrative law judge's denial of her application for Social Security disability benefits claiming that the ALJ committed four errors which require a reversal of his decision. But I will limit my discussion to two: whether the ALJ erred in evaluating Clark's subjective symptoms and whether the ALJ properly assessed Clark's fatigue and its impact on her ability to function. Because I find that the ALJ erred in both the subjective symptom analysis and in failing to consider Clark's fatigue, I will reverse the ALJ's decision and remand the case.


         The ALJ began his analysis by determining that Clark had the severe impairment of multiple sclerosis. [A.R. 18.][1] The ALJ also found that Clark also had a variety of non-severe impairments, including hyperlipidemia, hyperpigmentation with itching consistent with brachioradial pruritus, and diabetes. But the ALJ determined that Clark did not meet any of the applicable social security listings for disability. Specifically, the ALJ examined listing 11.09 (muscular sclerosis) and found that she did not meet or equal the requirements for that listing.

         At the next step, the ALJ determined Clark's residual functional capacity (RFC). He determined that Clark should be limited to light work, subject to several additional limitations including occasionally lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling 20 pounds and frequently doing those things with 10 pounds; standing and/or walking 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; sitting 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; frequently climbing stairs and ramps; and never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [A.R. 20.] The ALJ also found that she could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but must avoid concentrated exposure to dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. [Id.] The ALJ further limited the work she could perform to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, as well as a work environment with few or no more than routine workplace changes. [Id.]

         The ALJ tells me that he based the RFC on his review of Clark's testimony and the submitted evidence. In particular, the ALJ considered Clark's symptoms, the objective medical evidence, and the opinion evidence. [Id.] The ALJ's description of the medical evidence can be found in his written decision, [see A.R. 20-23], and I need not repeat them here.

         The ALJ then posed the RFC and some additional hypothetical questions to a vocational expert (VE) who testified whether such a hypothetical person with Clark's RFC could likely find gainful employment. The ALJ determined that Clark was unable to perform her past relevant work as an Insurance Policy Writer either as actually performed or as generally performed. [A.R. 24.] However, he found that she could perform the jobs of Routing Clerk, Ticket Taker, or Office Helper, all of which exist in large numbers in the national economy. As a result, the ALJ found that Clark was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and its regulations.


         Let's start with some basics about my role as district court judge in reviewing appeals from the Social Security Administration. The role is a limited one. I do not review evidence and determine whether a claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. Instead, I review the ALJ's written decision 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 set a low bar for what constitutes “substantial evidence.” It 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)).

         Clark argues that the ALJ improperly dismissed her subjective symptoms which she testified to at length and which, if believed, paint a picture of a seriously disabled woman. Historically, courts do not overturn an ALJ's subjective symptom analysis unless it is “patently wrong.” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413-14 (7th Cir. 2008). However, “a failure to adequately explain his or her [subjective symptoms] finding by discussing specific reasons supported by the record is grounds for reversal.” Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 937 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 47 (7th Cir. 2009)); Brindisi v. Barnhart, 315 F.3d 783, 787-88 (7th Cir. 2003); Salaiz v. Colvin, 202 F.Supp.3d 887, 893 (N.D. Ind. 2016). The ALJ's determination “must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.” SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *9 (Mar. 16, 2016).

         Here, the ALJ focused on Clark's daily activities and noted that she reported the ability to perform personal care, prepare meals, complete light household chores, drive, manage finances, socialize with others, and shop. [A.R. 22.] The ALJ concluded that “[t]he function reports generally show that while the claimant reports limitations, she had a fairly active lifestyle that is inconsistent with allegations of disability.” [Id.] This was misleading. In fact, a review of the function reports would lead a reasonable person to conclude that calling Clark “fairly active” is a stretch.

         For starters, the Seventh Circuit has repeatedly instructed ALJs to not place “undue weight” on daily activities when assessing a claimant's subjective symptoms. Moss v. Astrue, 555 F.3d 556, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Moreover, the ALJ should explain any purported inconsistencies between the claimant's daily activities, subjective complaints, and the medical evidence in the record. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). A rote listing of activities does not cut it. Instead, the ALJ must provide an explanation as to how the daily activities are inconsistent with a claimant's subjective symptoms. Nelson v. Colvin, 2016 WL 337143, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2016) (“The mere listing of daily activities does not establish that a claimant does not suffer disabling pain and is capable of engaging in substantial gainful employment.”).

         The ALJ here simply catalogued Clark's daily activities, and then summarily concluded that her “active lifestyle” was inconsistent with a finding of disability. The ALJ failed to discuss which symptoms were inconsistent with the daily activities, but more concerningly, the ALJ failed to consider the manner in which the Plaintiff completed her daily activities. The ALJ cites to four function reports from Clark and her mother to support his findings regarding her daily activities. In those function reports, Clark details her activities of daily living, noting that her fatigue was the most limiting symptom in her daily activities. While Clark stated that she could make her own meals, she reported making “sandwiches, frozen dinners, vegetables, and hamburger helper, ” and that sometimes she is too tired to cook even those simple meals for herself. [A.R. 269.] Her mother corroborated this, noting that Clark “eats a lot of prepared foods.” [A.R. 324.] Clark also noted that although she was ...

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