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Jason Hahn v. Michael J. Astrue

May 22, 2012


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


In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Jason Hahn, through counsel, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Rose Hahn's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.*fn1

A. Procedural History

Rose Hahn applied for benefits in October 2005, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2005. (Tr. 195, 202). The alleged date of onset was amended to July 1, 2005, at the first evidentiary hearing. (Tr. 13-14). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. After holding a hearing, ALJ Anne C. Pritchett denied the application for benefits in a decision dated October 16, 2008. (Tr. 85-97). The Appeals Council granted review and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (Tr. 101-02).

ALJ Pritchett held another hearing and denied the application in a decision dated February 5, 2010. (Tr. 106-22). The Appeals Council denied review, and the February 5, 2010, decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1). Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

B. Issues Raised by Plaintiff

Plaintiff raises the following points:

1. The ALJ erred in assessing the medical evidence.

2. The ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's mental impairments.

3. The ALJ's credibility findings were erroneous.

4. The ALJ failed to account for all of plaintiff's limitations in her assessment of Plaintiff's 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.*fn2 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). However, 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 he or she suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment at step three and cannot perform his or 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 must determine not whether Plaintiff was, in fact, 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 entire administrative record is taken into consideration, but this Court does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384, 1390 (7th Cir. 1997). However, 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), and cases cited therein.

D. The Decision of the ALJ

ALJ Pritchett followed the five-step analytical framework described above. She determined that Plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. She found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, old compression fractures at L4 and L5, mild recurrent carpal tunnel syndrome of the right hand, obesity, and degenerative changes of the left knee and right foot. She found that Plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment. She further determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at the sedentary exertional level. She determined that Plaintiff was able to do her past work as an office manager as it is generally performed. She also determined that there are other jobs which Plaintiff could perform, such as receptionist and clerk typist.

E. The Evidentiary Record

The Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the record is directed to the points raised by plaintiff.

1. Agency Forms

Plaintiff was born in 1963 and was 42 Plaintiffs old when she allegedly became disabled on July 1, 2005. (Tr. 230). She was last insured for DIB as of June 30, 2008. (Tr. 207).

She had worked as an owner/operator of a daycare business from 1988 to 1995, and from 2003 to 2005. Between those periods, she worked in accounting at Wal-Mart. (Tr. 261).

In a Disability Report, Plaintiff said that she was unable to work because of pain in her neck, low back, left hip, right foot and wrist. She also had headaches, a problem with her left eye, allergy and high blood pressure. (Tr. 249). She said that she was unable to sit, stand or walk for very long. Her pain made it hard to concentrate. When she had an allergy attack, she could not talk or breathe. Neck pain made it difficult to hold her head up. Her back and hip pain prevented her from bending, sitting, walking and grocery shopping. (Tr. 249).

Plaintiff obtained a GED in 1997. She had not been in special education classes. (Tr. 255).

2. First Evidentiary Hearing

Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the first evidentiary hearing on June 10, 2008. (Tr. 12).

Her alleged date of onset was amended to July 1, 2005, because she worked in her home daycare business until June 30, 2005. (Tr. 14). She had 2 employees. They took care of children aged 6 weeks to 12 Plaintiffs. She started that business in January 2003. (Tr. 15). Before that, she worked in the accounting department at Wal-Mart. She spent most of her time there entering data into a computer. (Tr. 16). Before Wal-Mart, she had a daycare business with her mother. (Tr. 18).

She stopped working in July, 2005, because she could not lift the children or be on her feet to make a meal. (Tr. 19). She said she could not have worked at a sedentary job then because her feet were numb all the time and sitting made her back hurt. Her back had gotten progressively worse since 2005. (Tr. 19). At the time of the hearing, her low back pain would get so bad that she would have ...

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