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Ghys v. Commissioner of Social Security

May 19, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joe Billy McDADE United States Senior District Judge


This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 11) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (Doc. 13). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff appeals the decision of the Social Security Administration denying his claim for disability benefits. Each party has responded in opposition to the other's Motion, and they are now fully briefed and ready for disposition. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance is granted.


To be entitled to disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove that he is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine if the claimant is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner of Social Security engages in a factual determination. See McNeil v. Califano, 614 F.2d 142, 145 (7th Cir. 1980). The factual determination is made by using a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Maggard v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 376, 378 (7th Cir. 1999).

In the first step, a threshold determination is made to determine whether the claimant is presently involved in a substantially gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not under such employment, the Commissioner of Social Security proceeds to the next step. At the second step, the Commissioner evaluates the severity and duration of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant has an impairment that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, the Commissioner will proceed to the next step. At the third step, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairments to a list of impairments considered severe enough to preclude any gainful work; and, if the elements on the list are met or equaled, he declares the claimant eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

If the claimant does not qualify under one of the listed impairments at Step Three, the Commissioner proceeds to the fourth and fifth steps. At the fourth step, the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") is evaluated to determine whether the claimant can pursue her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f). If she cannot, then, at Step Five, the Commissioner evaluates the claimant's ability to perform other work available in the economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

Once a case reaches a federal district court, the court's review is governed by 42 U.S.C. 405(g), which provides, in relevant part, "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Maggard, 167 F.3d at 379 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The claimant has the burden to prove disability through Step Four of the analysis, i.e., he must demonstrate an impairment that is of sufficient severity to preclude him from pursuing his past work. McNeil, 614 F.2d at 145. However, once the claimant shows an inability to perform his past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, at Step Five, to show the claimant is able to engage in some other type of substantial gainful employment. Id.

A court's function on review is not to try the case de novo or to supplant the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") with the Court's own assessment of the evidence. See Pugh v. Bowen, 870 F.2d 1271, 1274 (7th Cir. 1989). A court must only determine whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] own judgment" for that of the ALJ. See Delgado v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986). Furthermore, in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, credibility determinations made by the ALJ will not be disturbed "so long as they find some support in the record and are not patently wrong." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 335 (7th Cir. 1994).

However, the ALJ must articulate reasons for rejecting or accepting entire lines of evidence. Godbey v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 803, 807-08 (7th Cir. 2000). The ALJ is required to "sufficiently articulate [her] assessment of the evidence to 'assure us that [she] considered the important evidence . . . and to enable us to trace the path of [her] reasoning.'" Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993) (quoting Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287 (7th Cir. 1985)).


I. Procedural History

Plaintiff has applied for Social Security Benefits three times prior to the current application; each of these applications was denied. (Tr. 90-93). On June 20, 2005, Plaintiff filed the current application for benefits. He alleged an onset date of September 9, 1999, though under 20 C.F.R. § 416.335, the earliest month for which he could receive benefits is July 2005. (Tr. 99-104). His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 35-44). On January 19, 2006, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Tr. 34). ALJ Barbara Welsch held an initial hearing on July 9, 2008, and a subsequent hearing on September 15, 2008. (Tr. 213-49). The ALJ issued her opinion denying Plaintiff's application on September 22, 2008. (Tr. 7-25). On April 20, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 4-6). Plaintiff filed the instant appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) on May 15, 2009.

II. Relevant Medical History

On February 7, 2000, Christine Troxell performed a hearing evaluation on Plaintiff. In a letter reporting on this evaluation, she noted that Plaintiff had bilateral severe-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss. Plaintiff's speech reception threshold was 60 db, and his speech discrimination scores were 88% for the right ear and 84% for the left ear. She noted that these speech discrimination scores were "very good." At that time, Plaintiff had hearing aids, and could hear at conversational levels with the aids. Ms. Troxell noted that Plaintiff communicated effectively with his hearing aids and lip reading, and that his speech was "completely intelligible." (Tr. 160-61).

On September 18, 2003, Plaintiff reported left ear pain and bleeding, for which he was prescribed an antibiotic. At this time, Plaintiff also reported a history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), for which he had been on medication until he was 18. His girlfriend reported anger outbreaks and mood swings. He planned to be tested by a state agency regarding this. A referral to the Robert Young Center was offered, but Plaintiff declined, as he was unable to afford treatment. (Tr. 166).

Plaintiff saw Dr. Shawn Shianna on September 27, 2004 for a disability examination. At this examination, Plaintiff was wearing his right hearing aid; he typically wore one on the left ear, as well, but it was being repaired. He reported to Dr. Shianna that all hearing situations were difficult for him, and that he has constant ringing in his ears that interferes with concentration. Dr. Shianna noted that Plaintiff's speech was "very, very good. It is so good that I might not suspect a hearing loss if I was listening to this gentleman's speech in a social situation." Plaintiff "seemed a bit hard-of-hearing when [Dr. Shianna] spoke to him, though he did fairly well over all." Dr. Shianna noted that the results of testing were "a bit worse across the board" to those obtained in 2000. He was puzzled that Plaintiff's acoustic reflex results were better than might have been expected considering Plaintiff's pure tone thresholds. Dr. Shianna found that Plaintiff had bilateral severe-to-profound hearing loss, and opined that his true thresholds might be somewhat better than testing suggested. He stated that Plaintiff would "benefit from continued bilateral hearing aid use," and that he might be a candidate for cochlear implant in the distant future. He recommended that Plaintiff's hearing be monitored yearly. (Tr. 162-65).

Dr. Francis Vincent performed an RFC evaluation of Plaintiff on October 18, 2004. Dr. Vincent found that Plaintiff had no exertional, postural, manipulative, visual, or environmental limitations. He noted that Plaintiff had the communicative limitation of limited hearing, but that his speaking was unlimited. He concluded, based on the 2004 evaluation, that Plaintiff had bilateral severe-to-profound hearing loss, with an aided average hearing threshold of 58.3 dB and 64% speech discrimination. (Tr. 199-206).

On August 3, 2005, Dr. Paul Hauck performed a mental status evaluation of Plaintiff. At the time of the evaluation, Plaintiff was wearing a hearing aid in the right ear, but that his left hearing aid was broken. After noting Plaintiff's medical history and current living situation, he proceeded to relate the results of his conversation with Plaintiff. Plaintiff reported getting frustrated with people because they didn't understand that he needed them to speak louder. Dr. Hauck stated that Plaintiff's mood, affect, speech, and thought processes were normal, though Plaintiff noted sometimes incorrectly thinking that the phone was ringing or someone was at the door. Plaintiff knew the day of the week, but not the date; he thought that it was July 2004. He did know that he was in Rock Island, Illinois, his own birthday, and Dr. Hauck's profession, though not Dr. Hauck's name. Plaintiff could recall five digits forward and three backward, but he did not know any news from the day before or the route he had travelled to the office. The only modern president prior to Bush that he could recall was Clinton, he could only name four large cities, he could only come up with George Bush as a famous living person, and he could only list the September 11, 2001 attacks as a famous event. Plaintiff had trouble with most simple subtraction problems and some simple addition, and could not correctly explain the meaning of two common proverbs, though he could explain the difference between a bush and a tree. Dr. Hauck reported that Plaintiff's "judgment leaves much to be desired," and that he cannot handle his own funds. Plaintiff could understand and follow simple orders, though he could not remember three of the orders after 10 minutes; he had problems with authority figures. Plaintiff stated that "he would not be able to accept a job if offered tomorrow and put up with the customary pressures of a ...

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