ENGLEKING v. COLVIN
DECISION ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL REVIEW - The court REVERSES AND REMANDS undersentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) the Commissioner's decision that Reese E. Engleking is not disabled. See order for details. Signed by Magistrate Judge Debra McVicker Lynch on 9/29/2017.(LBT)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
REESE E. ENGLEKING,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1 Acting
Commissioner of the Social Security,
) Case No.: 4:16-cv-00041-DML-SEB
Decision on Complaint for Judicial Review
Plaintiff Reese E. Engleking applied in February 2013 for Disability
Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits
(SSI) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act, alleging that
he has been disabled since December 14, 2012. Acting for the Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration following a hearing held November 17, 2014,
administrative law judge Monica LaPolt issued a decision on December 10, 2014,
finding that Mr. Engleking is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review of
the ALJ’s decision on February 2, 2016, rendering the ALJ’s decision for the
Commissioner final. Mr. Engleking timely filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) for review of the Commissioner’s decision.
Nancy A. Berryhill is now the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration. As provided by Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d), she is substituted for Carolyn
W. Colvin as the defendant.
Mr. Engleking contends the Commissioner’s decision must be reversed and
remanded because the ALJ cherry-picked the evidence, failed properly to evaluate
certain medical evidence, and provided a significantly flawed credibility analysis.
The court will first describe the legal framework for analyzing disability
claims and the court’s standard of review and then address Mr. Engleking’s specific
assertions of error.
Standard for Proving Disability
To prove disability, a claimant must show he is unable 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) (DIB benefits); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (SSI benefits).2 Mr.
Engleking is disabled if his impairments are of such severity that he is not able to
perform the work he previously engaged in and, if based on his age, education, and
work experience, he cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented these statutory
Two programs of disability benefits are available under the Social Security
Act: DIB under Title II for persons who have achieved insured status through
employment and withheld premiums, 42 U.S.C. § 423 et seq., and SSI disability
benefits under Title XVI for uninsured individuals who meet income and resources
criteria, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. The court’s citations to the Social Security Act and
regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration are those applicable
to DIB benefits. For SSI benefits, materially identical provisions appear in Title
XVI and generally at 20 C.F.R. § 416.901 et seq.
standards by, in part, prescribing a five-step sequential evaluation process for
determining disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
Step one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity; if he is, then he is not disabled. Step two asks whether the claimant’s
impairments, singly or in combination, are severe; if they are not, then he is not
disabled. A severe impairment is one that “significantly limits [a claimant’s]
physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The
third step is an analysis of whether the claimant’s impairments, either singly or in
combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the conditions in the
Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The Listing of
Impairments includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA has predetermined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets all of the criteria for a listed
impairment or presents medical findings equal in severity to the criteria for the
most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is presumptively disabled and
qualifies for benefits. Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).
If the claimant’s impairments do not satisfy a listing, then his residual
functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes of steps four and five. RFC is
a claimant’s ability to do work on a regular and continuing basis despite his
impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. At the
fourth step, if the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, then he
is not disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the relevant economy
that the claimant can perform, based on his age, work experience, and education
(which are not considered at step four), and his RFC; if so, then he is not disabled.
The individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at steps one
through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets
that burden, then the Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work
exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can
perform, given his age, education, work experience, and functional capacity. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004).
Standard for Review of the ALJ’s Decision
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s (or ALJ’s) factual findings is
deferential. A court must affirm if no error of law occurred and if the findings are
supported by substantial evidence. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th
Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence means evidence that a reasonable person would
accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id. The standard demands more than a
scintilla of evidentiary support, but does not demand a preponderance of the
evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246 F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001).
The ALJ is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate, justification for
her decision to accept or reject specific evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart,
357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ need not address every piece of evidence
in her decision, but she cannot ignore a line of evidence that undermines the
conclusions she made, and she must trace the path of her reasoning and connect the
evidence to her findings and conclusions. Arnett v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 586, 592 (7th
Cir. 2012); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).
The ALJ’s Sequential Findings
Mr. Engleking was born in 1967, was 45 years old at the alleged onset of his
disability in 2012, and was 47 years old at the time of ALJ’s decision. Beginning in
about September 2014 and continuing through the time of the administrative
hearing in November 2014, Mr. Engleking was working part-time, 15 hours or less
per week, driving people to medical appointments. (R. 46-47). Other than this job,
Mr. Engleking had not worked since his alleged onset date of December 14, 2012.
(R. 20). He had previously worked for about 13 years, from February 1996 to April
2009, in the die maintenance department of a forging company, a physically
demanding job. (R. 275-77, 286-87). Mr. Engleking’s employment as a forger ended
because his medical conditions prevented him from performing his work. (R. 285).
At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Engleking had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. At step two, she identified
the following severe impairments: “status post hip replacement on the left,
avascular necrosis of the left hip,3 mild arthropathy4 of the lumbar spine, mild
degenerative joint disease of the right knee (in combination with other physical
impairments), emphysema, and anxiety.” (R. 21). At step three, she found that no
listings were met or medically equaled. Mr. Engleking does not raise any error with
respect to the ALJ’s steps one through three determinations.
In her RFC, the ALJ limited Mr. Engleking to sedentary work as defined at
20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) (described as work which “involves sitting” and walking and
standing only occasionally, and involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time
and occasionally lifting and carrying articles like files and small tools). She also
limited him to working foot controls only occasionally and she prevented work
requiring more than occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and
climbing of ramps and stairs. With respect to Mr. Engleking’s mental capacity, the
ALJ stated that he has the capacity to understand, remember, and follow simple
instructions, and that in the context of simple, routine, repetitive, concrete, and
tangible tasks, Mr. Engleking can “sustain attention and concentration skills
sufficient to carry out work-like tasks with reasonable pace and persistence.” (R.
Avascular necrosis “is the death of bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply.”
See http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/avascularnecrosis/basics/definition/con-20025517. As the ALJ discussed later in her
decision, Mr. Engleking’s medical records show that his right hip also was afflicted
by avascular necrosis.
Arthropathy means “joint problem” and the term is often used by doctors
interchangeably with the term “arthritis,” which refers to joints that are inflamed.
The ALJ determined that her RFC prevents Mr. Engleking from performing
his past relevant work which, according to the vocational expert, was skilled work
at the heavy level of exertion. At step five, and based on the VE’s testimony, the
ALJ decided Mr. Engleking is capable of performing the functions of three
sedentary-level, unskilled jobs that exist in significant numbers in the relevant
economy (lens inserter, document preparer, and escort vehicle driver), and therefore
is not disabled.
Mr. Engleking’s Assertions of Error
Mr. Engleking contends that the ALJ’s RFC is erroneous and not supported
by substantial evidence because (1) she selectively reviewed the evidence by
emphasizing that which favored her ultimate conclusion and ignoring a substantial
amount of evidence detracting from her conclusion, (2) she did not properly evaluate
the four GAF scores in the record, and (3) her credibility determination is patently
The court starts with the plaintiff’s claimed error that the ALJ’s credibility
determination is patently wrong. As is evident below, the other claimed errors are
subsumed in the analysis.
The ALJ’s credibility determination is patently wrong and requires
Social Security regulation 96-7p requires an ALJ to consider a claimant’s
subjective complaints in light of the relevant objective medical evidence, as well as
any other pertinent evidence that sheds light on the claimant’s functional
limitations. That other evidence can include the claimant’s daily living activities,
the severity and intensity of the claimant’s symptoms, precipitating and
aggravating factors, medication, treatment, and other measures undergone by the
claimant to relieve his symptoms, and the efficacy and side effects of the medication
and treatment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3). Because the ALJ sees and hears the
claimant, her assessment of the claimant’s credibility is entitled to special deference
from the court. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 678 (7th Cir. 2008). The court’s role is
“limited to examining whether the ALJ’s determination was ‘reasoned and
supported,’ and it may not overturn the ALJ’s finding unless it is ‘patently wrong.’”
Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413-414 (7th Cir. 2008).
The ALJ’s discussion of Mr. Engleking’s credibility is replete with reasons
that either lack support in the record or do not detract from a person’s credibility.
The court addresses below three facets of the ALJ’s credibility analysis that are
particularly problematic. When an ALJ’s credibility determination is this errorinfected, remand is required because the court cannot determine whether the ALJ
would otherwise have come to the same conclusion about the claimant’s ability to
work. See Allord v. Barnhart, 455 F.3d 818, 821 (7th Cir. 2006) (a credibility
determination is a judgment call and when the ALJ “based his judgment call on a
variety of considerations but three of them were mistaken,” the court cannot be sure
that the same determination would be made had he not erred).
A. The ALJ’s conclusion that Mr. Engleking is not believable because
his limited activities cannot be verified and must be attributable
to something other than his medical conditions is not supported
by the record.
Mr. Engleking has undergone core decompression surgeries for his left hip
(May 2011) and his right hip (July 2013) to treat his avascular necrosis—the dying
of bone tissue because of a lack of blood supply. That surgery is a prophylactic
surgical intervention; dead tissue on the femoral head bone is removed to stimulate
bone repair. See http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/86568-treatment. If the
disease continues to advance, a partial or total hip replacement may be necessary.
Id. Mr. Engleking had half of his left hip joint replaced in September 2011 (a
hemiarthroplasty) and, according to his testimony, was scheduled for a right hip
replacement in the summer of 2013, but that surgery was postponed because back
problems were also discovered. (R. 25-26). Mr. Engleking testified that he feels
constant pain in both his right hip and left hip that makes it very difficult for him to
sit or stand for more than 30 minutes at a time without the pain increasing to levels
that are very difficult to endure. If he walks more than 75 yards, the pain also
worsens to a level of 7/10 and sometimes 9/10. Mr. Engleking has had physical
therapy, an injection to treat his back arthritis, is seen at a pain clinic, takes pain
medication, and uses a TENS unit5 to treat pain.
Mr. Engleking lives in a small, one-room, shed-like building situated off of his
mother’s home garage. He testified that his daily activities are minimal—he
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation and is used to
vacuums the small room, does laundry, mows his mother’s grass for 15-20 minutes
at a time using a riding lawn mower, and shops for groceries. Mr. Engleking
testified that dressing and bathing can be difficult because of pain caused when he
needs to bend to put on pants and socks or to wash his legs and feet. In the couple
of months before the administrative hearing, he got a part-time job driving people to
medical appointments within his surrounding area (of Seymour, Columbus, and
North Vernon, Indiana) though sometimes the appointments are in Indianapolis.
Mr. Engleking testified that when he must travel to Indianapolis (which is about an
hour from his Seymour home), he has to break up the drive.
Mr. Engleking also discussed his mental health problems and that he was
prescribed and took medication and attended counseling sessions. Still, he said he
suffers from crying spells, agitation or irritation, and has difficulty sleeping.
The ALJ found that Mr. Engleking’s description of the limiting effects of his
impairments on his daily living activities was not “strong evidence” that he was
disabled. She disbelieved they were as Mr. Engleking described them. In making
this credibility finding, the ALJ stated:
Although the claimant has described daily activities, which are fairly
limited, two factors weigh against considering these allegations to be
strong evidence in favor of finding the claimant disabled. First,
allegedly limited daily activities cannot be objectively verified with any
reasonable degree of certainty. Secondly, even if the claimant’s daily
activities are truly as limited as alleged, it is difficult to attribute that
degree of limitation to the claimant’s medical condition, as opposed to
other reasons, in view of the relatively weak medical evidence and
other factors discussed in this decision.
(R. 34). These reasons are not sensible and are not supported by the record.
The fact that Mr. Engleking’s activities “cannot be objectively verified” is not
a good reason to reject their existence. A claimant is not required to provide
“objective verification”—such as a “day in the life” video—to prove that what he
says about the way he spends his days and the activities he engages in are true.
Moreover, Mr. Engleking provided some corroborative evidence through a thirdparty function report written by his mother.
The court also cannot follow the ALJ’s logic in finding that Mr. Engleking’s
limited functioning in his daily living activities must be attributable to something
other than his medical condition “in view of the relatively weak medical evidence”
and “other factors.” It is not at all clear what the “other factors” are or what
medical evidence has been deemed “relatively weak.”
Mr. Engleking presented substantial evidence of serious problems with his
hips, and he presented medical evidence to substantiate his back pain. The medical
evidence is not “weak” at all. He suffers from a disease in which his hip bone tissue
dies from a lack of proper blood supply. A portion of his left hip has been replaced.
He has undergone a surgical procedure to address the right hip and may need a
total right hip replacement. (R. 28). He has undergone significant treatment in
addition to surgery. He takes pain medication, is seen at a pain clinic, and uses a
TENS unit. It is unclear what more the ALJ believed Mr. Engleking should do.
She mentioned many times that he did not use a cane, but it does not follow from
the lack of an ambulatory device that his hip impairments and pain are not as
limiting as he alleges. The ALJ did not suggest or cite any medical evidence to
support an inference that a person who engages in the minimal activities Mr.
Engleking testified about would use a cane if the severity of the impairments and
their limiting effects are as Mr. Engleking said they were.
Moreover, the ALJ highlights evidence to suggest Mr. Engleking’s hip
problems are not serious enough to cause Mr. Engleking’s symptoms, while ignoring
contrary evidence. For example, she stated that when Mr. Engleking saw a new
doctor, his “only real complaint was his right knee” and the doctor’s report did not
mention hip instability. The ALJ did not cite any record to support her statement,
but as Mr. Engleking points out, even if the ALJ was referring to certain records
identified by the Commissioner in her brief (R. 722-25), the knee pain was a new
problem treated by an orthopedist in October 2014. A medical visit to treat a new
problem does not logically indicate that Mr. Engleking’s hip issues had resolved.6
The ALJ also mentioned that Mr. Engleking had “decreased” range of motion in his
hips, but she failed to note the medical evidence of just how starkly decreased from
normal his range of motion was. See Dkt. 22 at pp. 3-4. It is simply inappropriate
for an ALJ to discount a claimant’s credibility because of “relatively weak” medical
Further, the medical records show that Mr. Engleking received a specific
referral to the orthopedist for treating his new knee pain. It is not surprising that
the orthopedist’s records indicate that the “chief complaint” for which he is being
seen is his right knee. Further, the medical visit documenting the new referral to an
orthopedist to treat the right knee notes Mr. Engleking’s chronic bilateral hip pain.
evidence when the ALJ leaves out of her discussion strong medical evidence that
contradicts her more benign descriptions.7
That criticism also applies to the ALJ’s discussion of GAF scores assigned by
different mental health clinicians. The ALJ acknowledged the existence of a low
GAF score of 49 from an April 2013 consultative examination and a low score of 40
from a January 2014 mental status examination, but she determined that GAF
scores are merely snapshots in time of mental health functioning and do not provide
a reliable longitudinal picture of functioning. She then failed to acknowledge other
GAF scores, in these same very low ranges, over a longitudinal time frame. As Mr.
Engleking points out, he consistently and over time has been assigned GAF scores
in the same very low ranges (35 in July 2011, 45 in August 2012, 49 in April 2013,
and 40 in January 2014), thus suggestive that, for him, they are an important
evidence of low functioning and are strong, and not weak, support for the
limitations Mr. Engleking claims he has. See Yurt v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 850, (7th Cir.
2014) (though ALJ was not required to individually weigh low GAF scores, her
discussion revealed a “larger general tendency to ignore or discount evidence
favorable to Yurt’s claim, which included GAF scores from multiple physicians
suggesting a far lower level of functioning than that captured by the ALJ’s . .
The ALJ’s omission of evidence that helps show how seriously Mr.
Engleking’s hips are affected (with documented limited range of motion and active
disease) also detracts from her statement that she found Mr. Engleking was too
dramatic during his hearing testimony by “acting as if his hips were giving out on
him.” (R. 30).
B. The ALJ inappropriately discounted Mr. Engleking’s credibility
because he did not stop smoking.
The ALJ also criticized Mr. Engleking for continuing to smoke cigarettes
after he was diagnosed with emphysema, and found his behavior made him less
credible. (R. 30). But as the Seventh Circuit has noted, a claimant’s failure to quit
smoking, because of its addictive nature, is “an unreliable basis on which to rest a
credibility determination.” Shramek v. Apfel, 226 F.3d 809, 813 (7th Cir. 2000).
C. The ALJ’s failure to acknowledge Mr. Engleking’s work history
detracts from her negative credibility finding.
The ALJ’s failure to consider Mr. Engleking’s strong work history in finding
him not credible is also problematic in this case. A claimant with a good work
record is entitled to “substantial credibility.” Hill v. Colvin, 807 F.3d 862, 868 (7th
Cir. 2015). Mr. Engleking has a solid work history, and worked for years at a
forging facility doing skilled and heavy exertion work until his conditions no longer
permitted that activity. In the years that followed, he underwent surgeries and
treatment for very serious hip problems, and just prior to the administrative
hearing, found some work that he could do on a limited basis. He was working—up
to 15 hours per week at minimum wage—driving persons periodically to doctor’s
appointments, and there is no indication that his work activities are inconsistent
with Mr. Engleking’s descriptions of the limiting effects of his impairments and the
pain he endures because of those impairments.
The ALJ suggested that this work activity reflected negatively on his
credibility (R. 20), but logically the work activity reflects positively on Mr.
Engleking’s credibility. See Stark v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 684, 689 (7th Cir. 2016) (among
other problems with ALJ’s credibility finding, the ALJ should have acknowledged
the claimant’s efforts to continue working while experiencing significant pain and
treatments to relieve it); Pierce v. Colvin, 739 F.3d 1046, 1051 (7th Cir. 2014)
(claimant’s “dogged efforts” to continue working is relevant to “credibility and
determining whether she is trying to obtain government benefits by exaggerating
her pain symptoms”).
In sum, because of the above-described serious errors in the ALJ’s credibility
analysis, remand is required. The court cannot find harmless error because it
cannot be sure that the ALJ would have reached the same conclusion about Mr.
Engleking had she not made these errors. Pierce, 739 F.3d at 1051 (“An erroneous
credibility finding requires remand unless the claimant’s testimony is incredible on
its face or the ALJ explains that the decision did not depend on the credibility
For the foregoing reasons, the court REVERSES AND REMANDS under
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) the Commissioner’s decision that Reese E.
Engleking is not disabled.
Debra McVicker Lynch
United States Magistrate Judge
Southern District of Indiana
Dated: September 29, 2017
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