United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
ELLIOTT D. ALLEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant
For Elliott D Allen, Plaintiff: Frederick J. Daley, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Daley, DeBofsky & Bryant, Chicago, IL.
For Michael Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Zachary David Clopton, LEAD ATTORNEY, United States Attorney's Office, Chicago, IL; AUSA-SSA, United States Attorney's Office (NDIL), Chicago, IL.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARY M. ROWLAND, United States Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Elliott D. Allen filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI 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 Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.
I. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
To recover Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the SSA, 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). 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 Commissioner 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 and SSI on March 25, 2008, alleging that he became disabled on April 30, 2007, because of head injury, headaches, cerebellar stroke, blurry vision, hypertension, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. (R. at 17, 156-65, 175, 180). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. ( Id. at 17, 87-90, 109-11).
On June 14, 2010, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (R. at 17, 32-86). The ALJ also heard testimony from John B. Cavenagh, M.D., a medical expert (ME), and Thomas F. Dunleavy, a vocational expert (VE). ( Id. ).
The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on September 15, 2010. (R. at 17-26). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 30, 2007, the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 19). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has medically determinable severe impairments that cause limitations in his capacity to perform substantial gainful activity. ( Id. ). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. ( Id. at 19-20).
The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) and determined that he has the RFC to perform a wide range of light work:
[Plaintiff] can lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and 20 pound[s] frequently with resting (sitting) 3 times during an 8-hour workday, in addition to regular breaks and lunch (sitting would be for approximately 5 minutes). [Plaintiff]
can also sit/stand/walk for 6 hours per 8-hour workday. [Plaintiff] can perform work that does not require repetitive motions with the neck; and cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can occasionally bend, squat and reach above shoulder level. Lastly, [Plaintiff] must avoid commercial driving or working at unprotected heights.
(R. at 20-21). Based on Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work as a housekeeper and shuttle driver. ( Id. at 24-25). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, his vocational factors and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the regional economy that Plaintiff can perform, including work as laundry folder, cafeteria attendant, and cashier. ( Id. at 25-26). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the SSA. ( Id. at 26).
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 15, 2011. (R. at 3-7). 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 SSA. In reviewing the 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).
A. The Relevant Medical Evidence
On April 19, 2007, x-rays revealed that Plaintiff had degenerative changes in his lumbosacral spine. (R. at 292). On March 15, 2008, Plaintiff presented at Provident Hospital emergency room complaining of headaches, blurred vision, and dizziness. ( Id. at 249). A CT scan revealed a left cerebellar stroke, and Plaintiff was transferred to Stroger Hospital. ( Id. at 249-50, 256, 273-77, 294-95). An MRI confirmed the stroke and identified ischemic changes with no intracranial bleeding and intact posterior arterial circulation. ( Id. at 291). Upon neurologic examination, Plaintiff had
an unsteady gait--trips some--and " very unsteady" with tandem gait. ( Id. at 276). On March 27, 2008, Plaintiff was status post left cerebellar intact with improvement, but was unable to tandem gait. ( Id. at 272).
On July 5, 2008, Norbert De Biase, M.D., conducted an internal medicine consultative examination on behalf of the Commissioner. (R. at 298-301). Plaintiff reported seizure history, drowsiness, headaches, chest pain, high blood pressure, and blurry vision. ( Id. at 298-99). He also stated that his stroke affects his right side, complaining of back pain running down his legs bilaterally, arthritis, and loss of balance, which necessitates walking with a cane. ( Id. at 299). Dr. De Biase found Plaintiff to be in no acute distress, awake, alert, oriented, stable affect, and a good historian. ( Id. ). On a musculoskeletal examination, Dr. Biase found that Plaintiff was able to walk 50 feet unassisted but that his gait was abnormal, secondary to limping on left side minimally. ( Id. at 300). Plaintiff had severe difficulty with heel/toe walking, squatting, and tandem gait due to loss of balance. ( Id. ). Straight leg raising test (SLR) was positive, lying position at 30° bilaterally and sitting position negative bilaterally. ( Id. ). Dr. De Biase found tenderness in both hips, both feet, and lower back, but Plaintiff's range of motion was free, full, and painless in all joints, except for both shoulders, lumbosacral spine, and left hip. ( Id. ). On a neurological examination, Dr. De Biase found that Plaintiff's strength, sensation, and deep tendon reflexes were symmetric and normal throughout. ( Id. ). Plaintiff's motor strength was 5/5, and a cerebellar test was negative. ( Id. ). On a mental status examination, Dr. De Biase found Plaintiff's orientation, memory, appearance, behavior, and ability to relate during the examination " were entirely within normal limits." ( I ...