The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEVIN
Plaintiff, Pamela Vadeboncoeur, seeks judicial review pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff moves for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. In the alternative, Plaintiff moves that her case be remanded to the Commissioner for consideration of additional, new evidence. The Defendant has filed a brief in support of the Commissioner's decision, requesting affirmance of that decision and a denial of the motion for remand.
For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and the motion for remand denied.
Plaintiff applied for DIB on April 11, 1994 and for SSI on March 15, 1994 (R. 34-41.)
Her applications, and timely request for reconsideration, were denied by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (R. 42-50.) Upon Plaintiff's timely request (R. 51), a hearing was held -- wherein Plaintiff was represented by an attorney -- before Administrative Law Judge John L. Mondi (the "ALJ") on July 27, 1995. (R. 318.) The ALJ denied Plaintiff's applications on October 17, 1995 on the grounds that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform her past relevant work as a hand product assembler. (R. 18.) On July 24, 1996, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 4-5.) Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), Plaintiff initiated this civil action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.
Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited. The Social Security Act, at 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), establishes that the Commissioner's findings as to any fact are conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence. See also Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384, 1390 (7th Cir. 1997). "Substantial evidence" means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842, 91 S. Ct. 1420 (1971); Brewer, 103 F.3d at 1390. The court may not reevaluate the facts, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Brewer, 103 F.3d at 1390. Conclusions of law are not entitled to deference, however, so if the Commissioner commits an error of law, reversal is required without regard to the volume of evidence in support of the factual findings. See Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997).
II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To receive disability benefits, a SSI or DIB claimant must be "disabled" as defined by the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D); 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a); Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993). An individual is "disabled" if she 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 12 months." See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). See also Jones v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 522, 523-24 (7th Cir. 1993). To satisfy this definition, an individual must have a severe impairment that renders her unable to do her previous work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a).
The Social Security regulations delineate a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. The ALJ first considers whether the claimant is presently employed or "engaged in substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If he or she is, the claimant is not disabled, and the evaluation process is over; if he or she is not, the ALJ next addresses whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments which "significantly limits . . . physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). Third, the ALJ determines whether that severe impairment meets any of the impairments listed in the regulations, 20 C.F.R. § 401, pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. If it does, then the impairment is acknowledged by the Commissioner to be conclusively disabling. See, Brewer, 103 F.3d at 1391.
If the impairment does not so limit the claimant's remaining capabilities, the fourth step is that the ALJ reviews the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") and the physical and mental demands of her past work. RFC is a measure of what an individual can do despite the limitations imposed by her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a). See also Social Security Ruling 96-8p (1996). If the claimant can perform her past relevant work, she will be found not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
For the fifth step, if the claimant shows that her impairment is so severe that she is unable to engage in her past relevant work, then the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant -- in light of her age, education, job experience and functional capacity to work -- is capable of performing other work and that such work exists in the national ...