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Willetta Phinnessee v. Michael J. Astrue

March 9, 2012

WILLETTA PHINNESSEE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This is an action for judicial review of agency action, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Represented by counsel herein, Willetta Phinnessee (Plaintiff) seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Defendant Commissioner filed a full transcript of the entire record of the administrative record, totaling just under 400 pages (referred to herein using the page numbers from the Court Transcript Index at Doc. 12-1, as "Tr. ___").

A. Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for benefits in August 2007, alleging disability beginning on February 1, 2005 (Tr. 137, 140). Her application was denied initially and denied on reconsideration. After holding a hearing, ALJ Mitchell F. Stevens denied the application for benefits in a decision dated May 19, 2010 (Tr. 11-18). The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision (Tr. 3). Administrative remedies have been exhausted, and Plaintiff timely filed a complaint in this Court. She filed an amended complaint here in August 2011, and counsel have fully briefed the issues via memoranda filed December 13, 2011 and February 13, 2012 (see Docs. 15, 24, 28).

B. Issues Raised by Plaintiff

Plaintiff presents the following arguments.

1. The ALJ's credibility findings were erroneous.

2. The ALJ failed to account for all of Plaintiff's limitations in his assessment of her residual functional capacity (RFC).

C. Applicable Legal Standards

To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.*fn1 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).

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). Limitations arising from alcoholism or drug use are excluded from consideration of whether a claimant is disabled. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(C); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1535. "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.

Social Security regulations set forth a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained this process as follows:

The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. 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 continues. The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not disabled. The fifth step assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work. If the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled.

Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-69 (7th Cir. 2011).

Stated another way, 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009); Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992).

If the answer at steps one and two is "yes," the claimant will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment at step three but she cannot perform her 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 Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001)(Under the five-step evaluation, an "affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled.. If a claimant reaches step 5, the burden shifts to the ALJ to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.").

This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to ensure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. The scope of review is limited. "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, this Court determines not whether Plaintiff is disabled but whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether any errors of law were made. See Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996), citing Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995). This Court uses the Supreme Court's definition of substantial evidence, i.e., "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

In reviewing for substantial evidence, the undersigned Judge considers the entire administrative record but may not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute his own judgment for that of the ALJ. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003); Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). While judicial review is deferential, it is not abject; this Court does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. See Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010).

D. The Decision of the ALJ

ALJ Stevens followed the five-step analytical framework ...


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