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Merchant v. Astrue

June 29, 2010

THOMAS M. MERCHANT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy J. St. Eve, District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Thomas M. Merchant, has moved for summary judgment, seeking reversal or remand of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") Commissioner's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Defendant, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue ("Commissioner"), has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, requesting that the Court affirm his final decision. For the following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants Defendant's motion for summary judgment, and affirms the Commissioner's final decision.

LEGAL STANDARDS

I. Standard of Review

"When the Appeals Council denies review, the ALJ's decision becomes the final decision of the Commissioner." Schaaf v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). A reviewing court's role in reviewing an ALJ's decision is "'extremely limited.'" Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008)).

A court will affirm an ALJ's denial of benefits if substantial evidence supports the decision. Schaaf, 602 F.3d at 874; see also Parker v. Astrue 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010) ("Although judicial review of the decisions of administrative agencies is deferential, it is not abject."); Hopgood v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Schaaf, 602 F.3d at 874 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420 (1971)); see also McCurrie v. Astrue, No. 09 CV 3371, 2010 WL 333696, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 25, 2010). Accordingly, "even if reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [a claimant] is disabled," a reviewing court will affirm an ALJ's denial of benefits if the ALJ's decision has adequate support. Simila, 573 F.3d at 513 (internal quotations omitted).

Moreover, the ALJ must "build an 'accurate and logical bridge' from the evidence to her conclusion that the claimant is not disabled." Id. (quoting Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008)). "[I]f the decision 'lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review,' a remand is required." Hopgood, 578 F.3d at 698 (quoting Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002)). "While a claimant bears the burden of proving disability, the ALJ in a Social Security hearing has a duty to develop a full and fair record." Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1098 (7th Cir. 2009). As such, "'[a]n ALJ has a duty to solicit additional information to flesh out an opinion for which the medical support is not readily discernible.'" Simila, 573 F.3d at 516 (quoting Barnett v. Barnhart, 381 F.3d 664, 669 (7th Cir. 2004)). An ALJ is not required, however, to mention or discuss every piece of evidence. Denton v. Astrue, 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010). "An ALJ is entitled to evaluate the evidence and explanations that support a medical source's findings," and "she need not recontact the source every time she undertakes such an evaluation." Simila, 573 F.3d at 517. A reviewing court "generally upholds the reasoned judgment of the Commissioner on how much evidence to gather." Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1098.

II. Disability Standard

As the Seventh Circuit has explained:

To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must be "disabled," which the Social Security Act defines as an "inability 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."

Liskowitz v. Astrue, 559 F.3d 736, 739-40 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E) and 423(d)(1)(A)). "[A] claimant must show that the disability arose while he or she was insured for benefits." Id. at 740.

"Social Security regulations prescribe a five-step test for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act." Id.

The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation continues. The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and ability to engage in past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not disabled. The fifth step assesses the ...


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