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Carol A. Fleming v. Michael J. Astrue

February 15, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reagan, District Judge:


A. Introduction

In late January 2010, Carol Fleming (represented by counsel) filed suit in this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).*fn1 Defendant, Commissioner Astrue, timely answered and submitted the transcript and administrative record on April 2, 2010. Following several extensions, the issues were briefed as of August 19, 2010. For the reasons described below, the Court rejects Fleming's arguments and affirms the Commissioner's decision.

B. Summary of Procedural History

Fleming filed an application for benefits on November 8, 2005, alleging disability beginning on June 16, 2005 (Transcript, "Tr.," 78, 705). The application was denied initially and denied on reconsideration. After holding a hearing, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Zane A. Lang denied the application for benefits in a decision dated September 24, 2008 (Tr. 16-21). Fleming's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision (Tr. 3). Fleming exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint in this Court.

C. Nature of Plaintiff's Claim

Fleming contends that the ALJ clearly erred in failing to award her any period of disability between June 15, 2005 and August 14, 2008. Fleming asserts that she is entitled to at least a closed period of disability, because she underwent a series of surgeries beginning with hand surgery in April 2005. Without citing to any particular evidence regarding her functional capacity, Fleming argues that she was "clearly disabled" from July 5, 2005 through early 2008 (Plaintiff's Brief; Doc. 21, p. 5).

D. Applicable Legal Standards

To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. For these purposes, "disabled" means the "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." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). A "physical or mental impairment" is an impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3) and 1382c(a)(3)(C). "Substantial gainful activity" is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities and that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.

The Social Security regulations recognize that as people age, they limit their capacity to adjust to new employment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(a). A "younger person" is defined as an individual between the ages of 18 through 49. The regulations presume that -- as to claimants under 50 years old -- age will not seriously affect the ability to adjust to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). Ms. Fleming is a younger individual; she was 39 years old at the time of the hearing (Tr. 78).

The Social Security regulations delineate a sequential five-step inquiry to ascertain whether a claimant is disabled. Under this approach, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is serious; (3) whether the impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged to be conclusively disabling; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, given his or her age, education, and work experience. Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b-f). Accord Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009)(The ALJ must evaluate a claim for disability "under the mandatory five-step sequential analysis" of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) (DIB) and 416.920(a)(4) (SSI)). A negative answer at any point in the five-step analytical process except step three halts the inquiry and leads to a determination that the claimant is not disabled. Garfield v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 605, 607 n.2 (7th Cir. 1984), citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

If a claimant has satisfied steps one and two, he will automatically be found disabled if he suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment (step three) but he cannot perform his past work (step four), the burden shifts to the Secretary at step five to show that the claimant can perform some other job. Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984). See also Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007), quoting Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004)("If the claimant makes it past step four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant can successfully perform a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy").

This Court reviews the Commissioner's denial of benefits to ensure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, the undersigned District Judge must determine not whether Plaintiff is, in fact, disabled, but instead whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether any errors of law were made. SeeBooks v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996), citing Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995)).

"Substantial evidence" has been defined by the Supreme Court as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richard v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). See also Ketelboeter v. Astrue, 550 F.3d 620, 624 (7th Cir. 2008)(substantial evidence means evidence ...

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