United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARY M. ROWLAND, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Ida Cervantes filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1381a. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment requesting the Court to remand the Commissioner's decision. For the reasons stated below, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
I. THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
To recover SSI, a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 409-10 (7th Cir. 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. § 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 twelve 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. §§ 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 claimant bears the burden of proof through Step 4, but at Step 5 the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Cervantes applied for SSI on April 3, 2009, alleging that she had become disabled on November 1, 2008. (R. at 171). This application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Cervantes filed a timely request for a hearing. (R. at 25, 131, 137). An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on October 21, 2010, during which Cervantes testified and was represented by counsel. (R. at 25, 41). The ALJ also heard testimony from Larry M. Kravitz, Psy.D., a medical expert and Thomas A. Gusloff, a vocational expert. (R. at 25, 41, 170). Cervantes's attorney provided an opening statement. (R. at 46-48).
The ALJ denied Cervantes's request for SSI on November 19, 2010. (R. at 36). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at Step 1, that Cervantes had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 3, 2009, the application date. (R. at 27). At Step 2, the ALJ found that Cervantes had the severe impairments of status post-left ankle fracture and repair, diabetes, and depression. (Id.). At Step 3, the ALJ determined that Cervantes did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (R. at 27-31).
The ALJ then assessed Cervantes's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and determined that she had the RFC to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a), with the following limitations:
The claimant can lift no more than a maximum of 10 pounds at a time; occasionally lift and/or carry articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools; stand/walk for a total of no more than 2 hours in a normal 8-hour workday; and sit for a total of 6 hours in a normal 8-hour workday subject to postural limitations of never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally climbing stairs or ramps, occasionally balance using a hand-held assistive device, and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; a manipulative limitation of frequently handling of objects bilaterally; an environmental limitation to avoid concentrated exposure to wetness; and subject to the limitations of performing unskilled work that require simple, routine, and repetitive tasks... performed in isolation [in a] stable work environment that does not have production or pace requirements and that requires only occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public.
(R. at 31). At Step 4, the ALJ determined that Cervantes was unable to perform any past relevant work. (R. at 34). At Step 5, based upon Cervantes's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Cervantes could perform. (R. at 35). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Cervantes was not disabled, as defined by the Social Security Act, since April 3, 2009, the application date. (R. at 35-36).
On April 10, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Cervantes's request for review. (R. at 6-11). Cervantes now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. See 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 section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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 42 U.S.C. § 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) (internal quotations and 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 (internal quotations and citation omitted). 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. RELEVANT MEDICAL AND VOCATIONAL EVIDENCE
Cervantes was born on December 27, 1968 and was forty years old when she filed for SSI. (R. at 171). At the time of the hearing, she possessed an eighth-grade education. (R. at 84). Between 1993 and 2000, she held various jobs in the housekeeping and manufacturing industries. (R. at 84, 210). As of the hearing, Cervantes lived in a first-floor apartment and said that she was able to drive her automobile several times each week. (R. at 62-63). She also testified that she was the primary caretaker for her two young children. (R. at 76). Cervantes's disability purportedly results from a variety of physical and mental impairments including diabetes, depression, intermittent explosive disorder, left ankle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and pain on the left side of her body. (R. at 33, 46-48, 199).
A. Physical Impairments
1. Pre-hearing Medical Evidence
In 1992, Cervantes underwent surgery for a fractured left ankle and subsequently began experiencing pain in the ankle. (R. at 46, 63, 725). The pain intensified in 1998 and by 2005, it had spread to the last three left toes, the lateral aspects of her left foot, calf, and thigh, her left buttock, and her lower back. (R. at 725). In addition, Cervantes has had diabetes since at least 2004. (R. at 28).
In 2005, Cervantes underwent an MRI, which showed a heel spur and tibio-talar osteoarthritis. (R. at 725). She was referred to a pain clinic, which provided her with a "CAM Walker, " a cane, and prescriptions for pain medication. (Id.). On December 30, 2008, Cervantes was diagnosed with "[c]alcaneal spur causing chronic heel pain" as well as "sensory neuropathy of L5 over the 4th and 5th digits of the left foot." (R. at 292).
On May 21, 2009, Dilip Patel, M.D., examined Cervantes on behalf of the Commissioner, noting the left ankle surgical scar. (R. at 297-301). Dr. Patel also stated that Cervantes suffered "moderate pain on weightbearing, " as well as "reduced range of movements and tenderness on the area." (Id.). As for her back, Cervantes had "mild" stiffness and discomfort, as well as "slightly reduced range of movements." (Id.). Dr. Patel also commented about Cervantes's "abnormal" gait, noting that she was unable to walk more than fifty feet without the use of a ...