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Piper v. Astrue

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

May 8, 2013

JULIE D. PIPER, Plaintiff,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOE BILLY MCDADE, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 11) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (Doc. 14). Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision to deny her disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff filed an accompanying Motion for Leave to File Excess Pages along with her Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 10). The Court finds that Plaintiff sufficiently explained the need to file excess pages and thus grants her Motion to File Excess Pages. For the reasons stated below, however, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance is granted.


On July 20, 2009, Plaintiff Julie D. Piper applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), alleging that she became disabled with back disorders as of September 25, 2006. (R. at 19, 21, 189). Her claim was denied initially on September 2, 2009, and again upon reconsideration on December 14, 2009. (R. at 110, 118). Plaintiff then requested a hearing on December 31, 2009, which was held on February 11, 2011. (R. at 35, 123). Plaintiff, her husband, her daughter, and an impartial vocational expert testified at the hearing. (R. at 19). In a written decision issued on March 3, 2011, Shreese M. Wilson, the Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") who presided over the hearing, determined that Plaintiff had severe back impairments but none that rendered her disabled under the Act. (R. at 16-29). Plaintiff filed a request for appeal, but the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request on April 3, 2012, thus making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (R. at 1-3). Plaintiff then filed the present action on April 30, 2012, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1).


I. Disability Standard

To qualify for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove that she is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The medical impairment must either "be expected to result in death", or must have lasted or "be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Id. Additionally, a claimant must satisfy an "insured status" requirement by demonstrating that her earnings record has acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to accrue disability insurance benefits, and that her disability began on or before the date that insurance coverage ended. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(i); 42 U.S.C. § 423(c). The Commissioner will consider the evidence available in a claimant's case record and make factual determinations to establish whether the claimant is then entitled to any benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d).

The Commissioner applies a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled, and thus, entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Maggard v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 376, 378 (7th Cir. 1999). The claimant has the burden of proving the existence of a disability through the first four steps of the analysis by demonstrating that she has a sufficiently severe impairment that precludes her from engaging in past work. McNeil v. Califano, 614 F.2d 142, 145 (7th Cir. 1980). The claimant must provide objective medical evidence of "the existence of a medical impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). A claimant's statements as to pain or other symptoms alone will not suffice. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). If a claimant meets this burden, it then shifts to the Commissioner to prove that the claimant can still perform some other kind of "substantial gainful employment." Id.

The five-step analysis more specifically breaks down into the following sequence:

1) The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is presently involved in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, she is not disabled. Id. If she does not, the Commissioner proceeds to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

2) The Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the durational requirement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant's impairments or combination of impairments is not severe, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the impairment(s) is severe, the Commissioner will move to the next step.

3) The Commissioner will compare the claimant's impairment(s) to those in a list of impairments to determine if the impairment(s) meets or medically equals the criteria of a listing. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If the claimant's impairment(s) meets or medically equals a listed impairment, the Commissioner will find her disabled without needing to consider the claimant's age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

4) If the claimant's impairment(s) does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the Commissioner will review the evidence to consider the claimant's residual functional capacity and her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still meet the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work, she is not disabled. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

5) If the claimant cannot perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner will determine whether the claimant can adjust to other work by considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot adjust to other work, then she is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Otherwise, she is not. Id.

II. Standard of Review

"The standard of review that governs decisions in disability-benefit cases is deferential." Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). When a claimant seeks judicial review of an ALJ's decision to deny benefits, the Court must only "determine whether [the ALJ's decision] was supported by substantial evidence or is the result of an error of law." Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 369 (7th Cir. 2004). Forty-two U.S.C. section 405(g) governs the Court's review, by providing, in relevant part, 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 defined as "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Maggard, 167 F.3d at 379 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

To determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court will review the entire administrative record. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). The Court will not, however, "reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Id. Credibility determinations by the ALJ are particularly not upset "so long as they find some support in the record and are not patently wrong." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 335 (7th Cir. 1994). Moreover, while the Court must ensure that the ALJ "build[s] an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, " he need not address every piece of evidence. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. Instead, the Court must remand the case only where the decision "lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).


Plaintiff was forty-two years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date of September 25, 2006. (R. at 193). Her disability insurance coverage extended until December 31, 2011, and she applied for disability insurance benefits on July 20, 2009. (R. at 189, 193).

I. Relevant Medical History[2]

On September 25, 2006, Plaintiff saw her primary care physician, Dr. Manuel Ascano, following a work injury that caused her lower right back pain and numbness in her right thigh. (R. at 425). Plaintiff explained that she was transporting a large patient sitting in an oversized wheelchair from the nursing home where she worked to the doctor's office, and that she injured herself when she lifted the wheelchair to push it through a doorframe. (R. at 52-53, 425). Dr. Ascano assessed Plaintiff with low back pain and lumbar radiculopathy, [3] advised an MRI of the lumbar spine, and prescribed her Celebrex.[4] (R. at 426). Plaintiff stopped working after her visit to Dr. Ascano and began receiving Workers' Compensation benefits for her injury. (R. at 189-90).

Plaintiff's MRI showed a new small right paracentral disc protrusion that caused mild thecal sac effacement[5] at the L4/5[6] level and an existing central disc herniation[7] that caused mild thecal sac effacement at the L5/S1 level of her lumbar spine. (R. 486). Plaintiff also had mild multi-level degenerative endplate changes[8] involving the lumbar spine but no compression fractures or significant subluxation.[9] (R. at 486). On November 8, 2006, Plaintiff saw Dr. Deofil Orteza for a series of L4/5 lumbar epidural steroid injections to treat her low back pain. (R. at 289-92). At the time of her visit to Dr. Orteza, Plaintiff was taking the prescription drugs Celebrex and Darvocet.[10] (R. at 289). Dr. Orteza reported Plaintiff as a "healthy-looking female... in good general health, " but noted that she had episodes of headaches related to her migraine headaches. (R. at 290). He also reported that she had normal gait and a clinically straight back and that her musculoskeletal system was "unremarkable except for... low back pain with radicular pain along the anterior aspect of the right thigh and leg." (R. at 290). Plaintiff saw Dr. Orteza for two more lumbar epidural steroid injections over the course of the month. (R. at 281, 285). At her third appointment, Dr. Orteza noted that Plaintiff reported improvement of her pain by at least sixty percent after her previous epidural steroid injection, and thus did not contemplate any further follow-up appointments unless her pain became significant again. (R. at 281).

In addition to epidural steroid injections, Plaintiff was also advised to undergo physical therapy to manage her low back pain. (R. at 298-309). On December 7, 2006, Deb Austin, a physical therapist, reported that Plaintiff expressed pain of up to ten out of ten after prolonged walking and during the evaluation of her lumbar spine flexion[11] after full extension, but that her pain was usually five out of ten. (R. at 299-300). Ms. Austin also noted that Plaintiff was limited to seventy percent flexion and eighty-five percent extension abilities, but that she could rotate her back within normal limits. (R. at 299). Plaintiff also had independent gait and posture but they were noted as antalgic[12] and slow. (R. at 299). She was advised to undergo continuing therapy and attended twenty-one ...

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