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7th Circuit vacates denial of benefits to man with shooting pain and numbness

August 20, 2018

Finding an administrative law judge did not evaluate the credibility of a claimant and instead relied on the testimony of a physician who had not even examined the patient, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the denial of Social Security benefits to an Indiana man.

This is the fifth case since July that appellate court has vacated and remanded the denial of disability benefits from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. Primarily, the 7th Circuit found the ALJ’s decisions were not support by the evidence.

In this latest case, George Plessinger applied for Social Security disability insurance benefits because his chronic back pain limited his ability to walk, stand and sit for any period of time. Plessinger was born with congenital spinal stenosis and began experiencing back pain at the age of 23, but had held labor-intensive jobs, such as being a diesel mechanic and electric lineman, until an accident in April 2012 exacerbated a prior injury.

First, Plessinger tried nerve block injections and then had surgery to repair a ruptured disc. Since that time, he has had shooting pain and numbness, can only walk a short distance and stand for just five minutes at a time.

Physicians who examined Plessinger corroborated his account of his physical limitations. However, John Pella, a physician certified in internal medicine and specializing in pulmonary disease, reviewed the medical records and concluded Plessinger would be able to lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally, sit for two hours at a time, stand up to one hour at a time and walk 15 to 30 minutes at a time.

The ALJ ended up denying Plessinger’s request for benefits, and the Northern Indiana District affirmed. 

In reversing the ruling, the 7th Circuit found the ALJ relied too heavily on Pella’s testimony and discounted the credibility of Plessinger’s own account of his pain. Moreover, Pella qualified his opinions by signaling that he had not considered Plessinger’s complaints and that someone else, like the ALJ, would need to assess the credibility of those complaints.

Also, the appellate panel noted the ALJ gave scant attention to another physician’s opinion which mirrored Plessinger’s testimony, and “cherry-picked” from the opinion of a surgeon. In addition, the ALJ failed to conduct an analysis himself.

“The ALJ’s only explanation for finding Plessinger ‘not entirely credible’ was that his ‘subjective complaints’ were ‘not reasonably consistent with the overall evidence of record.’ This is language that this court has criticized as ‘meaningless boilerplate’ if the ALJ does not offer more of an explanation for the purported inconsistencies,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court, citing Stark v. Colvin, 813 F.3d 684, 688 (7th Cir. 2016).

The case is George A. Plessinger, II, v. Nancy A. Berryhill, 18-1240.

Since July 10, the 7th Circuit has vacated and reversed Social Security benefit denials in Kaminski v. Berryhill, 17-3314; Chavez v. Berryhill, 17-2978; Spicher v. Berryhill, 17-3399; and Walker v. Berryhill, 17-3391.

The appellate court also affirmed one denial in Penrod v. Berryhill, 17-2973.

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