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Pakhotama v. Colvin

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

May 16, 2013

KHAMCHANH PAKHOTAMA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

MARY M. ROWLAND, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Khamchanh Pakhotama filed this action seeking reversal 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.[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 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 SSI on May 1, 2007, alleging that he became disabled on May 1, 2007, later amended to October 2, 2006, because of lower back injury and right and left hip pain due to necrosis. (R. at 9, 30, 49-50, 60, 108-13, 142). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. ( Id. at 9, 49-55, 64-68). On May 28, 2009, Plaintiff filed for DIB, alleging that he became disabled on October 2, 2006, because of an injury to his left hip. ( Id. at 9, 132-36). The DIB application was escalated to the hearing level to join Plaintiff's previously filed SSI application. ( Id. at 9). On July 16, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (R. at 9, 24-48). The ALJ also heard testimony from Susan A. Entenberg, a vocational expert (VE). ( Id. at 9, 24-48, 78, 81, 103).

The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on September 21, 2009. (R. at 9-15). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 2, 2006, the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 11). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following medically determinable severe impairments: herniated disc at the lumbar spine, status post lumbar spine surgery, and a history of bilateral necrosis of the hip. ( Id. ). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. ( Id. ).

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC)[3] and determined that he can perform sedentary work with the following additional limitations: "sit-stand option at will; no ladder, rope or scaffold climbing; and only occasional climbing of ramps or stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling or crawling." (R. at 12). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work as a machine operator, cashier, and packager. ( Id. at 13). 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 assembler, inspector, and packager. ( Id. at 14). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the SSA. ( Id. at 14-15).

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 7, 2010. (R. 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).

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 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 ...


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