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Suess v. Colvin

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

May 10, 2013

GILLIAN K. SUESS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


MARY M. ROWLAND, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Gillian K. Suess filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under 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 have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, this case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.


To recover Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the SSA.[2] 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 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.


Plaintiff applied for DIB on July 26, 2005, [3] alleging she became disabled on April 30, 2002, due to panic and anxiety attacks. (R. at 220). The application was denied, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. ( Id. at 127-32). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on July 10, 2007 ( id. at 29-54), and denied benefits 17 days later, on July 27, 2007 ( id. at 102-13, 132). The Appeals Counsel accepted the request for review and remanded the case, directing the ALJ to further consider Plaintiff's work history, her mental impairments, and the ALJ's RFC finding, including taking evidence from a vocational expert, if warranted. ( Id. at 114-17).

On March 30, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing conducted by video teleconferencing before an ALJ. The ALJ also heard testimony from Ellen Rozenfeld, Psy.D., a medical expert ("ME"), and William Newman, a vocational expert ("VE"). (R. at 77, 91, 162). Following this hearing, the ALJ again denied benefits. ( Id. at 11-26). The Appeals Council denied review. ( Id. at 1-3). 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). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of April 30, 2002, through her date last insured of March 31, 2009.[4] (R. at 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments consist of "questionable" fibromyalgia; "possible" carpal tunnel syndrome; headaches; history of dizziness; major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder; and somatoform disorder. ( Id. at 14). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. ( Id. at 14-16). The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC")[5] and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform "light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)" with the following additional limitations:

lifting 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for at least six hours each in an eight hour workday; sitting for six to eight hours in an eight hour workday; using upper extremity for activities that do not require repetitive/constant simple grasping; and simple, routine, low stress job tasks that involve only routine changes (no multiple changes) and require working primarily

alone, with no regular general public contact. ( Id. at 16, 92-93). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work through the date she was last insured. ( Id. at 24, 93). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, her vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including work as a machine feeder, hand packer, and housekeeper/cleaner. ( Id. at 25, 93). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the SSA as of the date she was last insured. ( Id. at 26).


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 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).


Plaintiff raises the following arguments in support of her request for a reversal or a remand: (1) the ALJ failed to support her finding that claimant could perform the physical requirements of light work; (2) the ALJ erred by questioning the diagnosis of the treating physician;[6] (3) the ALJ committed numerous factual and legal errors in assessing claimant's credibility; (4) the ALJ failed to consider claimant's headaches, need to lie down, panic attacks and somatization disorder; and (5) the ALJ failed to weigh the ...

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