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Stanley v. Astrue

March 31, 2010

JUDITH K. STANLEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeanne E. Scott, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff Judith Stanley appeals from a final decision of the Social Security Administration (SSA) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(I) & 423. Stanley brings this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment or affirmance pursuant to Local Rule 8.1(D). Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 10); Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (d/e 14). For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance is allowed. The decision of the SAA is affirmed.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

Stanley was born April 22, 1954. She obtained a general equivalency diploma (GED) and can read and write in English. She has past relevant work as a child monitor, a kitchen helper, a bartender, and a parcel post clerk. Answer (d/e 7), Attachments 1 - 12, Exhibit, Administrative Record (A.R.), p. 25.*fn1 She filed the instant application for DIB on November 7, 2005, with a date last insured of June 30, 2005. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Stanley requested an administrative hearing, which was held October 11, 2006. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) heard testimony from Stanley and vocational expert Dennis Costotsan. A.R. at 28-66. In a decision dated October 31, 2006, the ALJ determined that Stanley could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and denied her request for DIB. A.R. at 8-27.

In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ followed the five-step analysis set out in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The analysis requires a sequential evaluation of: (1) whether claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the severity and duration of claimant's impairment; (3) whether the impairment equals a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) whether the impairment prevents claimant from doing her past relevant work; and (5) whether claimant can perform other work, given her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. The claimant has the burden of presenting evidence and proving the issues on the first four steps. The SSA has the burden on the last step; the SSA must show that, considering the listed factors, there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant is capable of performing. Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736,742-43 (7th Cir. 2009).

The ALJ determined that Stanley met her burden on the first two steps of the analysis. The ALJ found that Stanley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 29, 2003. A.R. at 13. The ALJ, noting that he was giving her the benefit of the doubt, found that Stanley suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and depression. Id. at 13-14. The ALJ next concluded that Stanley failed to demonstrate any impairment severe enough to equal an impairment listed on Appendix 1 (step three). The ALJ then considered whether Stanley retained the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work (step four). The ALJ concluded that Stanley retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work, involving only simple two and three step instructions. A.R. at 15. Based on this residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Stanley had met her burden at step four in establishing that she was unable to perform her past relevant work. A.R. at 25.

The ALJ proceeded to step five, i.e., the analysis of whether Stanley could perform a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy. The ALJ noted that Stanley was fifty-two years old at the time of the Decision and, thus, would be considered an individual closely approaching advanced age. The ALJ further noted that transferability of job skills was not material to the disability determination "because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is 'not disabled', whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills." A.R. at 25.

The ALJ determined that Stanley could make a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. A.R. at 25-26. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Stanley was not disabled under the Social Security Act, and her request for DIB was denied. The ALJ noted that he was required to consider Stanley's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience in conjunction with the Medical-Vocational Grid Rules. The ALJ recognized that, if a claimant can perform all or substantially all of the demands at a given level of exertion, the Medical-Vocational Grids would direct a conclusion of "disabled" or "not disabled" based on the claimant's vocational profile. The ALJ further recognized that, when a claimant cannot perform substantially all of the exertional demands of work at a given level and/or when the claimant has additional non-exertional limitations, the Medical-Vocational Grids provide a framework for decision-making. A.R. at 26.

The ALJ determined that Stanley's ability to perform the full range of light work was "impeded by additional limitations." A.R. at 26. Thus, the ALJ relied on testimony from a vocational expert to determine the extent to which Stanley's limitations eroded the unskilled light occupation base. The ALJ noted that the vocational expert testified that an individual with Stanley's limitations would be able to perform the following representative occupations: commercial cleaner (11,051 jobs exist in Illinois at the light exertional level); hotel room cleaner (15,635 jobs exist in Illinois at the light exertional level); pari-mutuel ticket checker (3069 jobs exist in Illinois at the sedentary exertional level); telephone interviewer (1398 jobs exist in Illinois at the sedentary exertional level); general office clerk (2818 jobs exist in Illinois at the sedentary exertional level); assembler (2993 jobs exist in Illinois at the sedentary exertional level); production inspector (596 jobs exist in Illinois at the sedentary exertional level); industrial labor sorter (2033 jobs exist in Illinois at the sedentary exertional level); and hand packager (830 jobs exist in Illinois at the sedentary exertional level).

A.R. at 26. The ALJ characterized the vocational expert's testimony as consistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

Stanley appealed the ALJ's Decision to the SSA Appeals Council. A.R. at 7. On August 29, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Stanley's request for review, stating that it found "no reason under [its] rules to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision." A.R. at 1. Thus, the ALJ's Decision became the final decision of the SAA. Stanley then timely filed the Complaint (d/e 1) in the present case.

ANALYSIS

This Court will reverse the decision of the SSA if that decision is not supported by substantial evidence or results from an error of law. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). This Court reviews the ALJ's factual findings to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support the decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This Court must accept the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Delgado v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986). The issue before this Court is whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and not whether Stanley is disabled. Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003). The ALJ must at least minimally articulate his analysis of all relevant evidence. Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). The Court must be able to "track" the analysis to determine whether the ALJ considered all the important evidence. Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 308 (7th Cir. 1995). This Court must not reweigh the evidence and should affirm as long as the ALJ "identifies supporting evidence in the record and builds a logical bridge from that evidence to the conclusion." Giles ex rel. Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 486 (7th Cir. 2007). If, however, "the ALJ's decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted).

Stanley seeks reversal of the SAA's Decision, arguing that the ALJ erred at step five of the analysis by failing to apply the Medical-Vocational Grid Rules as a framework and by considering inapplicable occupations in concluding that a significant number of jobs existed to which Stanley could adjust. Given Stanley's argument, a detailed analysis of Stanley's medical ...


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