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James Earl Cave v. Michael J. Astrue

August 10, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Martin Ashman


Plaintiff James Earl Cave ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, Michael J. Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income benefits ("SSI") under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. The parties have consented to have this Court conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including entry of final judgment. 28 U.S.C. § 636(e); N.D. Ill. R. 73.1(c). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is denied.

I. Legal Standard

In order to qualify for DIB, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled. An individual is considered to be disabled when he is unable 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). An individual is under a disability if he is unable to do his previous work and cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, partake in any gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Id. Gainful employment is defined as "the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized."

20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b).

A claim of disability is determined under a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, the SSA considers whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(I). Second, the SSA examines if the physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets the durational requirement.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(ii). Third, the SSA compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(iii). 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 proceeds to step four. Id. Fourth, the SSA assesses the applicant's RFC and ability to engage in past relevant work.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(iv). In the final step, the SSA assesses whether the claimant can engage in other work in light of his RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(v).

Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The court reviews the entire record, but does not displace the ALJ's judgment by reweighing the facts or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Instead, the court looks at whether the ALJ articulated an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence to her conclusions. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Thus, even if reasonable minds could differ whether the Plaintiff is disabled, courts will affirm a decision if the ALJ's decision has adequate support. Elder, 529 F.3d at 413 (citing Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 842 (7th Cir. 2007)).

II. Background Facts

Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI on April 15, 2008, claiming that he had become disabled as of January 1, 2003. His claims were denied initially and again upon reconsideration, after which a hearing was held on July 16, 2009 before administrative law judge ("ALJ") Robert Karmgard. The ALJ issued a decision on August 5, 2009, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review, and the ALJ's ruling became the Commissioner's final decision. Plaintiff then filed the instant action on September 2, 2010.

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was a thirty-nine year old man with a history of serious back pain. After undergoing a spinal fusion at the L4-L5 level in 1995, Plaintiff continued to experience low back pain that radiated through both of his legs. A laminectomy for L3, L4, and L5 was performed in December, 1999 in an attempt to alleviate these symptoms. By February, 2000, however, Plaintiff was again experiencing pain that radiated from his lower back through the legs, although a neurological examination did not indicate significant abnormalities.

(R. 275.)

Unfortunately, Plaintiff re-injured himself in September, 2001, and a series of further consultations and treatments followed. A short course of physical therapy provided some relief, but Plaintiff continued to experience shooting pains in his right thigh. (R. 314.) A follow-up CT scan and myelogram, however, showed no nerve entrapment and only mild disc bulging at the L5-S1 level. (R. 287, 314.) A functional capacity examination taken on March 12, 2002 indicated that Plaintiff could not perform his ...

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