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Johnson v. Astrue

November 2, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joan B. Gottschall United States District Judge

Judge Joan B. Gottschall


Evelyn Johnson seeks judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Johnson's claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Johnson applied for DIB on January 8, 2004, alleging that arthritis and back pain had prevented her from performing substantial gainful employment since September 4, 2003. Her application was denied initially on April 9, 2004 and denied upon reconsideration on September 27, 2004. Johnson sought a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was held on February 28, 2006. On March 22, 2006, the ALJ held that Johnson was not entitled to DIB, and the Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision on August 22, 2006, making the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Johnson filed this action on November 27, 2006. Johnson and the Commissioner filed cross motions for summary judgment.


Johnson, who was 51 years old on the date of the ALJ hearing, had worked for the Chicago Transit Authority for twenty-six years, first as a bus driver and later as a supervisor doing clerical work. In September 2003, Johnson stopped working because, according to her, she was experiencing severe back pain when sitting or standing for long periods of time. Twice after September 2003, Johnson attempted to return to work, but, in February 2004, she retired permanently because she felt she could not perform the job given her pain.

Beginning in June 2000, Johnson visited a chiropractor, Dr. David Krueger, to address her lower back and hip pain. Johnson returned to Dr. Krueger over the next several years. An xray revealed in November 2002 that Johnson had "degenerative disc disease." (R. 189.) With Dr. Krueger's supervision, Johnson underwent a regimen of physical therapy in late 2003 and early 2004. A September 2003 MRI revealed "minimal disc bulging with minimal disc desiccation." (R. 144.) But an EMG study in May 2004 was "unremarkable." (R. 148.) Johnson's physician, Dr. Fred Daniels, referred her to Dr. Charles Slack, an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Slack reported in May 2004 that Johnson "has a low back derangement I feel is related to her degenerative lumbar disc and facet joint disease." (R. 140.) Dr. Slack expressed his expectation that Johnson's symptoms could improve with use of Celebrex and strengthening exercise. (Id.)

Johnson submitted to the ALJ a report from Dr. Krueger and medical records from Drs. Krueger, Daniels, and Slack. The ALJ also considered three reports from physicians appointed by the state agency. Dr. Chirag Patel briefly examined Johnson, and two other doctors completed residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessments based on reviewing records submitted by Johnson. At the hearing in February 2006, the ALJ heard testimony from Johnson, a medical expert, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezike, and a vocational expert, Christopher Yep.

In his written decision, the ALJ determined that Johnson had "a severe combination of impairments of a history of breast cancer on the left with resulting mastectomy without recurrence, a history of chronic low back and neck pain, hypertension, anemia, and obesity."

(R. 21.) Nonetheless, the ALJ concluded that Johnson retained the capacity to obtain substantial gainful employment, and thus Johnson was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

(R. 22-25.)


The court may perform only a limited review of the ALJ's decision and must affirm if it is supported by substantial evidence. Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a "scintilla of proof" but "requires no more than 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. The court will not reweigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment on the question of whether the claimant is disabled. Id. at 305-06.


The Social Security regulations lay out a five-step analysis for determining whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ looks to whether the claimant is currently performing substantial gainful employment. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). In order to qualify, the impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509. At step three, the ALJ compares the claimant's impairment to specific listings in the regulations. If the impairment corresponds with one of the listed impairments, the claimant will be deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment does not meet one of the listed impairments, the ALJ must then make an RFC assessment, an evaluation of the claimant's ability to perform certain tasks despite her impairment, based on medical and other relevant evidence. The RFC is used in steps four and five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At step four, the ALJ determines whether, given the claimant's RFC, she is ...

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