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Sherry Rasmussen v. Michael J. Astrue

May 6, 2011

SHERRY RASMUSSEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Nan R. Nolan

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Sherry Rasmussen filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423(d), 1381a. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

To recover Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") or Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act, a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act.*fn1 York v. Massanari, 155 F. Supp. 2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001); Keener v. Astrue, 2008 WL 687132, at *1 (S.D. Ill. 2008). A person is disabled if he or she is unable to perform "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." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the ALJ conducts a standard five-step inquiry:

1. Is the claimant presently unemployed?

2. Does the claimant have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that interferes with basic work-related activities and is expected to last at least 12 months?

3. Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations?

4. Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?

5. Is the claimant unable to perform any other work?

See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520, 416.909, 416.920; Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). "An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled." Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985).

"The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner." Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for DIB on January 24, 2006, alleging that she became disabled on November 1, 2003, due to irritable bowel syndrome ("IBS"), colitis, chronic dizziness and numbness, neuromas*fn2 in both feet, bulging spinal discs, and abdominal pain. (R. at 12, 14, 85--86, 113.) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 12, 56-- 63, 75.)

On May 13, 2008, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 12, 22--55.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Sheldon J. Slodki, M.D., a medical expert ("ME") and Leo O. Knutson, a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 12, 44--55, 103, 105.)

The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on September 30, 2008. (R. at 12-- 21.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of November 1, 2003. (Id. at 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: adjustment reaction disorder, anxiety disorder, IBS, foot neuroma, gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"), colitis, and neck pain. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 15.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn3 and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work, except that she must have access to a bathroom and be allowed to elevate her feet to foot stool height; from a mental health perspective, she is limited to performing unskilled, simple, routine and repetitive tasks. (R. at 17.) Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 19--20.) At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, her vocational factors and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including work as an order clerk, surveillance system monitor, cashier and product inspector-checker/weigher. (Id. at 20.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 21.)

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 5, 2010. (R. at 1--7.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561--62 (7th Cir. 2009).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the Act. In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it "reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Id. The Court's task is "limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial "if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion." Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance." Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). "In addition to relying on substantial evidence, the ALJ must also explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review." Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it "must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). The Court must critically review the ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ has built an "accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion." Young, 362 F.3d at 1002. Where the Commissioner's decision "lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

IV. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff raises several arguments in support of her request for reversal and remand: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion ...


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