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Santo Accurso v. Michael J. Astrue

February 9, 2011

SANTO ACCURSO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Samuel Der-yeghiayan, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the court on Plaintiff Santo Accurso's (Accurso) motion for summary judgment, and Defendant's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, we deny Defendant's motion for summary judgment, grant Accurso's motion for summary judgment, and remand the instant action for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

Accurso states that he is forty-four years old and that he worked in the construction industry for more than twenty-three years before he became unable to work on February 1, 2006. Accurso indicates that he suffers from arthritis in his knee, torn ankle ligaments, diabetes mellitus, kidney problems, and swelling in his feet and left hand. Accurso also indicates that he is 5'9" tall and weighs more than 400 lbs. Accurso contends that his medical conditions, including his morbid obesity, have caused him to have knee and leg pain, difficulty walking short distances or climbing stairs, sleep apnea, and the inability to close his left hand.

On January 10, 2008, Accurso applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) with the Social Security Administration (SSA) alleging that he became unable to work beginning on February 1, 2006, due to bad knees, torn ankle ligaments, diabetes, a kidney mass, sleep apnea, an inguinal hernia, and arthritis. (AR 52). Accurso's application was initially denied on March 27, 2008, and was denied again on reconsideration on July 8, 2008. At Accurso's request, an administrative hearing was held on September 17, 2009. On October 15, 2009, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a partially favorable decision on Accurso's claim, finding that Accurso was "disabled" beginning May 1, 2009, but that Accurso was "not disabled" from February 1, 2006 through April 30, 2009, based on Accurso's "vocational factors and residual functioning capacity for the full range of sedentary work" during that time period. (AR 46). Accurso requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's denial of DIB from February 1, 2006 through April 30, 2009. On December 9, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Accurso's request for review. Accurso initiated the instant civil action for judicial review of the ALJ's partial denial of DIB pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Accurso and Defendant have each filed a motion for summary judgment.

LEGAL STANDARD

An individual that has been denied benefits by the Social Security Commission may seek review of the denial in a district court "after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court must review the evidence before the ALJ, "'considering both the evidence that supports, as well as the evidence that detracts from, the . . .decision,'" and should "uphold a decision so long as the evidence supports it and the ALJ explains h[is] analysis of that evidence with 'enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.'" Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008)(quoting in part Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005)). The district court's sole role is to determine "'whether the final decision of the [Commissioner] is both supported by substantial evidence and based on the proper legal criteria.'" Id.; see also Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010)(stating that the Commissioner's decision will be upheld, if the correct legal standard is applied and the decision "is supported by substantial evidence"); Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003)(stating that "'[e]vidence is substantial if it is sufficient for a reasonable person to accept as adequate to support the decision'"); Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008)(stating that the court cannot "displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations" and that "even if 'reasonable minds could differ concerning whether [the plaintiff] is disabled,'" the court "must nevertheless affirm the ALJ's decision denying her claims if the decision is adequately supported")(quoting in part Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)).

DISCUSSION

In reviewing a disability application, an ALJ follows a five-step process. At step one, the ALJ evaluates "the applicant's present work activity." Arnold v. Barnhart, 473 F.3d 816, 820-21 (7th Cir. 2007). At step two, the ALJ is required to "weigh[] the severity of the applicant's impairment." Id. (stating that "[t]he impairment or combination of impairments must significantly restrict an applicant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities or an ALJ should enter a finding of not disabled").At step three, the ALJ must determine "whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment" in a listing of disabling impairments (Listing). Id. If the claimant meets the requirements in "steps one, two, and three, she will automatically be found disabled." Knight v. Chater, 55 F.3d 309, 313 (7th Cir. 1995). However, if a claimant meets the requirements of steps one and two, but not three, the ALJ must proceed to step four and possibly step five. Id.

At the fourth step, "the ALJ determines whether the" residual functional capacity (RFC) "prevents the applicant from performing his or her past relevant work." Arnold, 473 F.3d at 820. At the fifth step, the "ALJ uses the assessment of RFC to determine if the applicant can make an adjustment to other work based on the applicant's age, education, and work experience." Id. (stating that "[i]n the last step, the burden is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that the applicant is capable of performing other work 'in the national economy'")(quoting in part Butera v. Apfel, 173 F.3d 1049, 1054 (7th Cir. 1999)).

Accurso argues that the ALJ erred by (1) failing to consider Accurso's obesity at step three, when he found that Accurso did not meet the requirements of any listed impairment, (2) failing to consider Accurso's obesity as an aggravating factor at step five, when assessing Accurso's limitations, (3) failing to adequately consider the objective medical evidence when finding Accurso's testimony relating to the time period before May 1, 2009 not credible, (4) failing to adequately consider the objective medical evidence in making his RFC assessment, and (5) failing to follow Social Security Ruling (SSR) 83-20 when determining the onset date of Accurso's disability.

In the instant action, the ALJ concluded that Accurso was "not disabled" from February 1, 2006 through April 30, 2009. Specifically, the ALJ found that Accurso did not satisfy step three because Accurso's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment, and that, from February 1, 2006 through April 30, 2009, Accurso did not satisfy step five because, based on Accurso's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were a significant number of jobs that Accurso could have performed during that time period. (AR 46).

I. Consideration of Obesity at Step Three

Accurso argues that the ALJ erred in finding that Accurso did not meet or equal a listed impairment without considering the effect of Accurso's obesity. At the third step of the disability evaluation process, "evidence demonstrating the claimant's impairments is compared to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work." Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 365 (7th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). A claimant's impairment is deemed to meet a listing only if the impairment meets "all of the criteria for a listed impairment" or the claimant "'present[s] medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.'" Sims v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002)(quoting in part Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-31 (1990))(emphasis in original). Accurso contends ...


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