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Gonul Kazmi v. Michael J. Astrue

October 22, 2012

GONUL KAZMI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mary M. Rowland United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Mary M. Rowland

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Gonul Kazmi filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("SSA"). 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 the parties 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 SSA,*fn1 a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the SSA. York v. Massanari, 155 F. Supp. 2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001); Keener v. Astrue, No. 06 C 0928, 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?

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520, 416.909, 416.920; see 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 September 16, 2007, alleging that she became disabled on January 31, 2006, due to back disorders. (R. at 54, 134, 192, 196.) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 54, 133, 134, 142, 151, 156.)

On July 1, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. at 54, 61--130.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Dubir Kazmi, Plaintiff's husband; James M. McKenna, M.D., a medical expert ("ME"); and James Breen, a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id.)

The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on August 17, 2009. (R. at 54--60.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from January 31, 2006, her alleged onset date, through September 30, 2008, her date last insured. (Id. at 56.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease cervical spine and status post-laminectomy lumbar spine*fn2 are severe impairments. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn3 and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with limitations. (R. at 56.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can lift a maximum of 20 pounds occasionally and lift and carry up to 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk about 6 hours in a normal 8-hour workday, sit about 6 hours in a normal 8-hour workday, and push and/or pull to include operation of hand and/or foot controls as restricted by the limitations on carrying /lifting subject to postural limitations of only occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and only occasionally stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling.

(Id.) Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a mortgage company manager and as a mortgage processor. (Id. at 59.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the SSA. (Id. at 59--60.)

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 6, 2011. (R. at 1--6.) 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 SSA. 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 Regula-tions. 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

A. The Relevant Medical Evidence

Plaintiff first complained of back pain in 1999. (R. at 410.) Physical therapy did not alleviate the pain. (Id.) An MRI of the lumbar spine indicated that Plaintiff had a herniated disc. (Id.) In December 2000, she had neurosurgery. (Id.) Following the surgery, Plaintiff received rehabilitation and physical therapy. (Id.) However, the pain continued to get worse. (Id.) Subsequently, Plaintiff was informed that the pain is caused by scar tissue and nothing can be done about it. (Id. at 410--11.) She was treated with multiple epidural injections and continued her physical therapy treatments, but the pain continued. (Id.)

In September 2002, an MRI was performed on Plaintiff's lumbar spine. (R. at 262.) The MRI found that Plaintiff had disc degeneration at L4--4 and L4--5 with mild central bulges at these two levels, a mild bilateral ligamentum flavum hyper-trophy and facet arthropathy at L3--4 and L4--5, a diffuse loss of signal of the marrow within lumbar vertebral bodies, and postoperative changes of the lower lumbar spine. (Id.)

Plaintiff began treating with Nasreen Hamidani, M.D., in October 2005. (R. at 407.) In February 2007, Plaintiff complained of an earache and lower back pain. (Id. at 386.) In August 2007, Dr. Hamidani ordered MRI scans of Plaintiff's cervical and lumbar spine. (Id. at 314--16.) The cervical MRI revealed that Plaintiff has a broad based right paracentral disco-osteophytic protrusion at C5--C6 with narrowing of the anteroposterior dimension of the spinal canal. (Id. at 314.) The lumbar MRI in- dicated L4--L5 desiccation of the intervertebral disc with diffuse bulging and the suggestion of a laminectomy defect at this level. (Id. at 315.) Desiccation was also seen in the L5--S1 intervertebral disc with ...


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