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REED v. BARNHART

May 26, 2004.

JAMES REED, JR, Plaintiff,
v.
JOANNE BARNHART, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES NORGLE, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff James Reed, Jr. ("Reed") seeks judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying him Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED; Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

  Reed was born on May 30, 1950 and has a high school education. From 1966 through 1996, he worked steadily and held a variety of jobs, including truck driver, heavy equipment operator, landscape worker, and carpenter.

  In December 1996, Reed experienced serious medical problems. He was hospitalized for seven days due to right hand weakness and slurred speech. He was diagnosed with acute stroke, secondary to cocaine abuse. Additionally, he suffered from hypertension. On December 26, 1996, Reed was discharged from the hospital and ordered to seek follow-up testing, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

  On January 6, 1998, Reed applied for DIB and SSI. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Reed's initial applications and requests for reconsideration. On November 9, 1999, Reed received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Percival Harmon. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Reed himself, Ellis D. Johnson, M.D. ("Dr. Johnson"), and Vocational Expert ("VE") Susan Entenberg. After considering evidence from both the hearing and the written record, the ALJ found that Reed was disabled for the period of December 18, 1997 to January 28, 1999, but not thereafter. Reed subsequently sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied review on July 13, 2001. On July 31, 2001, the Commissioner adopted the ALJ's decision.

  On August 6, 2001, Reed commenced this action seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Generally, Reed contends that the mental and physical problems resulting from his stroke continue to preclude employment, and therefore his disability status should not be limited to the period from December 18, 1997 to January 28, 1999. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment which are fully briefed and before the court.

  II. DISCUSSION

 A. Standard of Review

  When reviewing an ALJ's decision, the court must affirm if it is supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Kasarsky v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 539, 543 (7th Cir. 2003) (per curiam). 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). "The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995). Thus, the reviewing court does not "reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute our own judgment for that of the Commissioner.'" Kasarsky, 335 F.3d at 543 (quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000)). The court's task is limited to determining "whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it will be upheld even if an alternative position is also supported by substantial evidence. See Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004).

  Where, however, "the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). The Seventh Circuit requires the ALJ to "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [his] conclusions so that [the court] may afford the claimant meaningful review of the SSA's ultimate findings," Blakes ex rel. Wolfe v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir. 2003). It is not enough that the record contains evidence to support the ALJ's decision; if the ALJ does not rationally articulate the grounds for that decision, then the court must remand. See Steele, 290 F.3d at 941. In reaching his decision, the ALJ must confront evidence that does not support his conclusion and explain why it was rejected. See Godbey v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 803, 808 (2001): see also Heron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). With these principles in mind, the court will examine the parties' motions.

 B. Review of the ALJ's Decision

  Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Benefits are available only to claimants who can establish "disability" under the terms of the Social Security Act. The Social Security Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to either result in death or last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. See 42 U.S.C. § 1614(a)(3)(A). The Social Security Regulations require the ALJ to follow a five-step inquiry process to determine disability status. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f). The following must be analyzed in sequence: (1) whether the claimant is currently employed; (2) whether he has a severe impairment; (3) whether his impairment meets or equals one listed by the Commissioner; (4) whether the claimant can perform his past work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy. See id. A claimant has the burden of proving steps one though four. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). Once the first four steps are established, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy. See Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995).

  In determining Reed's disability status, the ALJ found that Reed met his burden of proving "disability" under the first four steps of the evaluation process. At step five, the ALJ found that Reed was disabled from December 18, 1997 through January 28, 1999; however, he also found that as of January 29, 1999, Reed had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform some work in the regional economy. Specifically, relying on testimony of the VE, the ALJ opined that Reed could perform light work, such as that required of a hotel housekeeper, a light janitorial worker, and ...


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