Daniliauskas v. Saul
MEMORANDUM Opinion and Order Signed by the Honorable Maria Valdez on 1/8/2021: Mailed notice (lp, )
Case: 1:19-cv-04898 Document #: 27 Filed: 01/08/21 Page 1 of 14 PageID #:763
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of
No. 19 C 4898
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This action was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Paul D.’s claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction
of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the
reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s request to reverse the decision of the Commissioner
is denied, and the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 18] is
In accordance with Internal Operating Procedure 22 – Privacy in Social Security
Opinions, the Court refers to Plaintiff only by his first name and the first initial of his last
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On December 29, 2016, Plaintiff filed a claim for DIB, alleging disability since
January 28, 2016 due to degenerative disc disease. The claim was denied initially
and upon reconsideration, after which he timely requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on April 23, 2018. Plaintiff
personally appeared and testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel.
Vocational expert Julie Bose also testified.
On July 23, 2018, the ALJ denied Plaintiff’s claim for benefits, finding him
not disabled under the Social Security Act. The Social Security Administration
Appeals Council then denied Plaintiff’s request for review, leaving the ALJ’s
decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by the
District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626
(7th Cir. 2005).
Plaintiff’s claim was analyzed in accordance with the five-step sequential
evaluation process established under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4). The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of January 28, 2016 through
his date last insured of December 31, 2016. At step two, the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease
and stenosis; and obesity. The ALJ concluded at step three that his impairments,
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alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal a Listing. Before step four,
the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except “he could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or
scaffolding.” (R. 15.)
At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff would be unable to perform his
past relevant work as an industrial truck mechanic. At step five, based upon the
VE’s testimony and Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ
concluded that Plaintiff can perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy, leading to a finding that he is not disabled under the Social
ALJ LEGAL STANDARD
Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if she has an “inability to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable
physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which
has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a Plaintiff is
disabled, the ALJ considers the following five questions in order: (1) Is the Plaintiff
presently unemployed? (2) Does the Plaintiff have a severe impairment? (3) Does
the impairment meet or medically equal one of a list of specific impairments
enumerated in the regulations? (4) Is the Plaintiff unable to perform her former
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occupation? and (5) Is the Plaintiff unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. §
An affirmative answer at either step 3 or step 5 leads to a finding that the
Plaintiff is disabled. Young v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389
(7th Cir. 1992). A negative answer at any step, other than at step 3, precludes a
finding of disability. Id. The Plaintiff bears the burden of proof at steps 1-4. Id.
Once the Plaintiff shows an inability to perform past work, the burden then shifts to
the Commissioner to show the Plaintiff’s ability to engage in other work existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. Id.
Section 405(g) provides in relevant part that “[t]he findings of the
Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence,
shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the ALJ’s decision is
limited to determining whether the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial
evidence or based upon legal error. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir.
2000); Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997). Substantial
evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate
to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Skinner v.
Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). This Court may not substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts, reweighing evidence,
resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Skinner, 478 F.3d
at 841; see also Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008) (holding that the
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ALJ’s decision must be affirmed even if “‘reasonable minds could differ’” as long as
“the decision is adequately supported”) (citation omitted).
The ALJ is not required to address “every piece of evidence or testimony in
the record, [but] the ALJ’s analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning
behind her decision to deny benefits.” Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th
Cir. 2001). In cases where the ALJ denies benefits to a Plaintiff, “he must build an
accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford, 227 F.3d
at 872. The ALJ must at least minimally articulate the “analysis of the evidence
with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex
rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005); Murphy v. Astrue, 496
F.3d 630, 634 (7th Cir. 2007) (“An ALJ has a duty to fully develop the record before
drawing any conclusions . . . and must adequately articulate his analysis so that we
can follow his reasoning . . . .”); see Boiles v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 421, 425 (7th Cir.
Where conflicting evidence would allow reasonable minds to differ, the
responsibility for determining whether a Plaintiff is disabled falls upon the
Commissioner, not the court. See Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178, 181 (7th Cir.
1990). However, an ALJ may not “select and discuss only that evidence that favors
his ultimate conclusion,” but must instead consider all relevant evidence. Herron v.
Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994).
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Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s decision was in error for the following reasons:
(1) the ALJ erred in failing to afford significant weight to the opinion of Plaintiff’s
treating neurologist; (2) the ALJ’s RFC determination was in error for failure to
define Plaintiff’s exertional limitations, among other things; and (3) the ALJ erred
in evaluating Plaintiff’s subjective statements for various reasons.
Treating Physician Rule2
Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to follow the “treating physician rule” by not
appropriately weighing the opinion of his treating neurologist, relying instead on
the opinions of the state agency physicians and assigning their opinions great
weight. An ALJ must give controlling weight to a treating physician’s opinion if the
opinion is both “well-supported” and “not inconsistent with the other substantial
evidence” in the case record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c); see Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d
734, 739 (7th Cir. 2011). The ALJ must also “offer good reasons for discounting” the
opinion of a treating physician. Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir.
2010) (internal quotations omitted); Scott, 647 F.3d at 739; see also Israel v. Colvin,
840 F.3d 432, 437 (7th Cir. 2016) (“A contradictory opinion of a non-examining
physician does not, by itself, suffice as a justification for discounting the opinion of
The Social Security Administration has modified the treating physician rule to eliminate
the “controlling weight” instruction. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520c (“We will not defer or give
any specific evidentiary weight, including controlling weight, to any medical opinion(s) . . . ,
including those from your medical sources.”). However, the new regulations apply only to
disability applications filed on or after March 27, 2017. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 (“For
claims filed (see § 404.614) before March 27, 2017, the rules in this section apply.”).
Plaintiff’s application in this case was filed in 2016, and therefore the ALJ was required to
apply the former treating physician rule.
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the treating physician.”). The regulations require the ALJ to consider a variety of
factors, including: (1) the length, nature, and extent of the treatment relationship;
(2) the frequency of examination; (3) the physician’s specialty; (4) the types of tests
performed; and (5) the consistency and support for the physician’s opinion. See 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
Plaintiff’s treating neurologist, Dr. Hurley, opined that Plaintiff could: lift
and carry 6-10 pounds occasionally and 0-5 pounds frequently; sit, stand, or walk
for only less than two hours in an eight-hour workday; never push/pull, climb
ramps, stairs, ladders, or ropes, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, reach, or
handle; occasionally finger; and frequently feel. Dr. Hurley opined that Plaintiff has
not been able to work full-time at any time since February 20, 2016.
The ALJ assigned Dr. Hurley’s opinion “no controlling or even great weight”
because the opinion was “not well-supported by or consistent with the record
evidence.” (R. 17.) The ALJ also relied upon the state agency physicians’ opinions
that Plaintiff could perform the requirements of light work in assigning less weight
to the more restrictive medical opinion of Dr. Hurley. Plaintiff argues that that the
ALJ erred by failing to discuss the factors in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c) and failing to
sufficiently support her conclusion that Dr. Hurley generally documented normal
findings in his examinations of Plaintiff. Neither argument is persuasive.
First, the ALJ addressed Dr. Hurley’s status as a specialist and treating
physician and, while not explicitly discussed, the ALJ clearly considered the length
of the treatment relationship and frequency of examination by discussing many of
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Dr. Hurley’s treatment notes by date of appointment as well as his medical
opinions. The ALJ also discussed tests performed by Dr. Hurley at his appointments
and devoted a good portion of the opinion to the consistency of Dr. Hurley’s opinion
with the medical evidence. In any event, it is not required that the ALJ explicitly
discuss each factor in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527, but only that the ALJ consider each
factor. Collins v. Berryhill, 743 F. App’x 21, 25 (7th Cir. 2018) (“[A]n ALJ must
consider the factors founds in 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c), but need only ‘minimally
articulate’ his reasoning; the ALJ need not explicitly discuss and weigh each
factor.”). It would be ideal if the ALJ had discussed and cited each of the factors in
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 in the opinion, but it is clear the ALJ sufficiently considered
the factors, and ultimately provided sufficient reasons for discounting Dr. Hurley’s
opinion. See Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 415-16 (7th Cir. 2008) (affirming denial
of benefits where ALJ only discussed two of the relevant factors).
Next, substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that Dr. Hurley’s
examinations were generally normal. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff responded3 to
epidural injections and Dr. Hurley’s treatment notes during the relevant period
generally documented normal findings. On various occasions, Dr. Hurley noted that
Plaintiff’s pain was improving; Plaintiff “knows to get” further epidural injections if
the pain returns (R. 304); the injections were fifty percent effective in relieving
Plaintiff’s pain; and Plaintiff had perfect motor strength. There are also notes
Although (as noted by Plaintiff) the ALJ did not specifically explain what she meant by
“responded,” it is clear that she meant that Plaintiff’s pain improved as a result of the
epidural injections, as she notes elsewhere in the opinion.
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reflecting Plaintiff’s pain worsening at times, but the ALJ discussed this evidence
and determined that overall, Dr. Hurley’s notes were inconsistent with his opinion.
The Court may not reweigh the evidence to arrive at a different conclusion where,
as here, reasonable minds could differ and the ALJ’s conclusion is supported by
substantial evidence. Herr, 912 F.2d at 181; Skinner, 478 F.3d at 841. The ALJ’s
conclusion that the injections helped Plaintiff’s pain was similarly supported by
ample evidence. See, e.g., Curvin v. Colvin, 778 F.3d 645, 651 (7th Cir. 2015).
Accordingly, the Court finds the ALJ properly evaluated Dr. Hurley’s opinion.4
Plaintiff next contends that the ALJ erred in the RFC determination for a
few reasons. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to evaluate Plaintiff’s RFC in
accordance with SSR 96-8p by failing to define Plaintiff’s exertional limitations.
Under SSR 96-8p, the ALJ “must discuss the individual’s ability to perform
sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing
basis . . . and describe the maximum amount of each work-related activity the
individual can perform[.]” The ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform the
requirements of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b),5 and that finding
is specific enough for the Court to discern the limitations found based on a
Also, as Plaintiff concedes the ultimate disability determination is for the Commissioner
to decide, not the plaintiff’s treating physician.
5 The regulations define light work, in relevant part, as “lifting no more than 20 pounds at a
time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds . . . [A] job is in
this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting
most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls.” 20 C.F.R. §
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“commonsensical reading” of the ALJ’s opinion. Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 564
(7th Cir. 1999) (citations omitted) (“When a claimant argues that there are fatal
gaps or contradictions in the [ALJ’s] opinion . . . we give the opinion a
commonsensical reading rather than nitpicking at it.”). That is especially true here
because the ALJ relied upon and gave great weight to the state agency physicians’
opinions that found Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform the requirements of light
work and made specific findings as to each of Plaintiff’s exertional limitations.6
Next, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated his obesity in
making the RFC determination. The Social Security Administration “has removed
obesity as a separate listing from the list of disabling impairments.” Castile v.
Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 928 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing SSR 02-1p). However, the ALJ is
required to consider a Plaintiff’s obesity in evaluating the severity of her other
impairments. Id.; see also Martinez v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 693, 689-99 (finding
reversible error when the ALJ failed to consider the effect of a body mass index of
over 40 on knee pain). The Seventh Circuit also requires an ALJ to consider a
Plaintiff’s obesity in evaluating her ability to work generally. See Browning v.
Colvin, 766 F.3d 702, 706 (7th Cir. 2014) (explaining that morbid obesity may make
a person unable to perform even sedentary jobs). Moreover, a “Plaintiff must
articulate how her obesity limits her functioning and exacerbates her impairments.
. . . This court has repeatedly excused the harmless error of an ALJ who fails to
Also, contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, the ALJ did discuss and consider that Plaintiff
needed to lie down and shift positions, and Plaintiff failed to meet his burden to show that
he was more impaired than the ALJ found. See Esther C. v. Berryhill, No. 18 C 407, 2019
WL 1254888, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 19, 2019).
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explicitly address a Plaintiff’s obesity but arrives at a final decision after reviewing
the medical opinions of physicians familiar with the Plaintiff’s obesity.” Hisle v.
Astrue, 258 F. App’x 33, 37 (7th Cir. 2007) (unpublished decision).
Here, the ALJ explicitly addressed Plaintiff’s obesity, finding it to be a severe
impairment and stating she considered Plaintiff’s obesity in formulating the RFC,
which is all she is required to do. See Martinez, 630 F.3d at 689-99. Further, the
Court finds no error in the ALJ finding obesity a severe impairment but not
including an obesity-related limitation or in her giving great weight to the state
agency physicians’ opinions despite that they did not find obesity a severe
impairment.7 See Julia R. v. Saul, No. 19 C 1570, 2019 WL 6877597, at *2 (N.D. Ill.
Dec. 17, 2019) (“[T]he ALJ is required to make the RFC determination based on all
the evidence . . . [and] the ALJ’s failure to parrot the limitations endorsed by any
one physician does not invalidate the RFC.”) (citations omitted). Significantly, none
of the doctors who evaluated or treated Plaintiff, including Dr. Hurley, opined that
Plaintiff’s obesity caused any additional limitation, so even if the ALJ had erred in
her evaluation of Plaintiff’s obesity and corresponding limitations, it would be
harmless error. See Cooley v. Berryhill, 738 F. App’x 877, 881 (7th Cir. 2018); Hisle,
258 F. App’x at 37. Accordingly, the ALJ’s RFC determination was supported by
substantial evidence and the Court will not remand the case on this basis.
The Court will also not remand the case on the basis that the ALJ allegedly failed “to
consider all of Plaintiff’s impairments, severe and non-severe, in combination.” (Doc. No. 14
at 9.) The ALJ discussed Plaintiff’s obesity and lumbar degenerative disc disease and
stenosis and stated that she considered them singly and in combination, and Plaintiff
quotes relevant portions of the ALJ’s opinion discussing these impairments. It is clear from
the opinion that the ALJ considered all Plaintiff’s impairments sufficiently.
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Plaintiff finally argues that the ALJ failed to evaluate his subjective
symptom statements in accordance with SSR 16-3p and failed to properly evaluate
the statements for other reasons. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ’s statement
that Plaintiff’s testimony was “not entirely consistent” with the medical evidence
shows that the ALJ used an incorrect legal standard. The ALJ went on to provide
multiple reasons for her conclusion, however, and exhaustively discussed the
medical evidence and its consistency with Plaintiff’s alleged symptoms. Thus, this
argument is unpersuasive.8 See, e.g., Schomas v. Colvin, 732 F.3d 702, 708 (7th Cir.
2013) (“The use of boilerplate is innocuous when . . . the language is followed by an
explanation for rejecting the claimant’s testimony”); Brian J. v. Saul, 438 F. Supp.
3d 903, 910 (N.D. Ill. 2020) (“This argument has been recently rejected . . . [and] it
is not clear what difference there is, if any, between ‘not entirely consistent’ with
and ‘not supported by a preponderance of’ the evidence[.]”) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted).
In any event, the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s statements were inconsistent with the
objective evidence of record was supported by substantial evidence. See Summers v.
Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 528 (7th Cir. 2017) (reviewing court must defer to the ALJ’s
credibility determination unless it is “patently wrong”). The ALJ explained how Plaintiff’s
professed symptoms were inconsistent with other aspects of the record including the
medical evidence, and exhaustively recounted Plaintiff’s treatment history giving specific
reasons for her findings. For that reason, the Court also finds the ALJ sufficiently
considered and discussed the inconsistency between Plaintiff’s statements regarding his
daily activities and the medical evidence, and simply assigned more weight to the medical
opinion evidence and treatment notes. (See R. 18.) The Court will not reweigh the evidence
to arrive at a different conclusion, as the ALJ’s conclusion was reasonable. See Elder v.
Astrue, 529 F.3d at 413.
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Next, the ALJ sufficiently discussed Plaintiff’s medication and other
treatments under SSR 16-3p, including an extensive discussion of the use and
effectiveness of hydrocodone for Plaintiff’s pain management. (R. 18.) Although it
appears that the ALJ incorrectly stated that Plaintiff never reported any
medication side effects to his medical providers, that error is harmless because at
the vast majority of appointments Plaintiff indeed did not report any medication
side effects. Plaintiff identifies only one occasion from months prior to the period of
adjudication where he told his doctor that a medication made him sleepy.
The ALJ’s acknowledgment of this one appointment that is of questionable
relevance due to its timing would not have changed her assessment that Plaintiff’s
statements of significant medication side effects were inconsistent with the absence
of reports of side effects to medical providers and other medical evidence. See
McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 892 (7th Cir. 2011) (“[W]e will not remand a case
to the ALJ for further explanation if we can predict with great confidence that the
result on remand would be the same.”). Finally, contrary to Plaintiff’s contention,
the ALJ was not required to explicitly discuss Plaintiff’s work history, as that “is
just one factor among many” when evaluating a claimant’s subjective statements.
Loveless v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 502, 508 (7th Cir. 2016). The ALJ’s evaluation of
Plaintiff’s subjective statements was supported by substantial evidence and the
Court will not reverse on this basis.
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For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s request to reverse the decision of the
Commissioner is denied, and the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment
[Doc. No. 18] is granted.
HON. MARIA VALDEZ
United States Magistrate Judge
January 8, 2021
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