7th Circuit disagrees with ALJ that woman is able to work

February 9, 2016

In vacating the denial of an application for Social Security disability benefits, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals admonished the administrative law judge for giving more weight to the opinion of the non-examining physician than to the diagnosis of the doctors who have been treating the applicant.

Debbie Stage appealed the denial of her application for supplemental security income, disability insurance benefits and disabled widow’s benefits, arguing the ALJ’s evaluation was unreasonable and he ignored substantial evidence she could not perform light work.

Since she slipped two discs while working in a factory in 1985, Stage’s physical condition has deteriorated. Debilitating back and hip pain caused her to quit working in 2009. Her treating physicians have diagnosed a lumbar disc bulge, annular tear and degenerative disc disease as well as severe degenerative arthritis. They have also noted constant pain prevents her from standing or walking for any length of time.

However, the ALJ found her impairments did not constitute a disability. Instead, the judge determined she was capable of performing light work which would require her to stand and walk for six hours a day and would include production assembler, small-parts assembler or electronics worker. The district court affirmed.

The 7th Circuit did not agree in Debbie A. Stage v. Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 15-1837.

In particular, the unanimous panel noted the ALJ’s assessment that Stage could do light work was not supported by the medical evidence. The 7th Circuit reminded the ALJ that he must have a good reason for not giving substantial consideration to a treating physician’s opinion.

“It strains credulity to find that a claimant who needed a hip replacement and had to sit while showering and shopping for groceries was capable of standing for six hours a day in the workplace,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court.

The 7th Circuit remanded the case to the agency for further proceedings. It also told the ALJ to obtain medical testimony on how Stage’s need for a hip replacement impacts her ability to stand for hours and to give “reasoned assessments” of her credibility, residual functional capacity and the treating physician’s opinion.  


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