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Starks v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 21, 2014

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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

MARY M. ROWLAND, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Larry Starks filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying his application for Sup-plemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. 1614(a)(3)(A). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and the parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

To recover Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Se-curity Act (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 activi-ty 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 deter-mining 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. §§ 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 disa-bled." 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

Starks applied for SSI on May 22, 2009, alleging that he became disabled on De-cember 1, 2007, due to Crohn's disease, status post right hemicolectomy, a history of ankylosing spondylitis, a cataract in the left eye, dysthymic disorder, anxiety, and depression. (R. at 13, 65, 155, 255, 421, 501). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Starks filed a written request for a hearing. ( Id. at 11, 64-70, 76-82). On March 18, 2011, Starks, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ( Id. at 11, 26-63). The ALJ also heard testimony from Edward P. Steffan, a vocational expert (VE). ( Id. at 11, 51-58, 101-04).

The ALJ denied Starks's request for benefits on March 31, 2011. (R. at 11-21). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Starks has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 22, 2009, the application date. ( Id. at 13). At step two, the ALJ found that Starks's Crohn's dis-ease, status post right hemicolectomy, [3] history of ankylosing spondylitis, [4] and cata-ract in left eye are severe impairments. ( Id. ). At step three, the ALJ determined that Starks 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. at 15).

The ALJ then assessed Starks's residual functional capacity (RFC)[5] and deter-mined that he has the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), "that involves: no concentrated exposure to heights or hazards; no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; limited depth perception, field of vision and ac-commodation with left eye; and the ability to take two unscheduled bathroom breaks per week, each lasting 5 minutes at a time." (R. at 15). At step four, the ALJ determined that Starks is unable to perform any past relevant work. ( Id. at 19). At step five, based on Starks's RFC, age, education, and work experience, the ALJ de-termined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national econ-omy that Starks can perform, including ticket seller and fast food worker. ( Id. at 19-20). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Starks was not suffering from a disa-bility as defined by the SSA. ( Id. at 20).

The Appeals Council denied Starks's request for review on June 5, 2012. (R. at 1-5). Starks now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the fi-nal decision of the Commissioner. Vallano 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 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 evi-dence, 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 sub-stantial evidence." Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial "if a rea-sonable 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 mean-ingful review, the case must be remanded." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

IV. MEDICAL EVIDENCE

Starks was hospitalized on November 15, 2007 for abdominal pain. (R. at 215). Later that month, he was hospitalized again, this time after complaining of chest pain, from November 30 to December 17, 2007. ( Id. at 225). During his hospitaliza-tion, Starks developed acute abdominal pain and underwent a right hemicolectomy on December 9, 2007. ( Id. at 225, 255). Starks also complained of neck pain and stiffness, and a bone scan performed during this hospitalization showed degenera-tive changes in the shoulders, knees, ankles, and feet. ( Id. at 220, 223). At the time of his discharge on December 17, 2007, it was thought that seronegative spondy-loarthropathy[6] and ankylosing spondylitis associated with Crohn's Disease were the likely diagnoses. ( Id. at 225).

Starks was hospitalized again from January 29 to February 3, 2008, after com-plaining of abdominal pain. (R. at 228). Soon after, he was readmitted to the hospi-tal from February 8-12, 2009, because of complaints of abdominal pain accompa-nied by blood in his stool. ( Id. at 237).

From April 10 to April 12, 2008, Starks was hospitalized due to chest pain that was likely musculoskeletal in origin. (R. at 252). During this hospitalization, he had, for the second time in four months, a bowel movement with a small amount of blood. ( Id. ). Starks reported feeling anxious and depressed since his surgery and di-agnosis of Crohn's disease, and was started on Fluoxetine for his depressed mood. ( Id. at 248, 250). Starks returned to the hospital complaining of abdominal pain on April 29 and was admitted until May 2, 2008. ( Id. at 260). From July 8 to July 12, 2008, Starks was again admitted to the hospital with complaints of chest pain. ( Id. at 467). During this hospitalization, the attending physician noted that Plaintiff's chest pain may be related to his depression and anxiety because of his flat affect, poor eye contact, and concerns about his own medical condition. ( Id. ). A psychiatric evaluation was ordered and Starks was diagnosed with Major Depression with anx-iety, which was exacerbated by his medical conditions. ( Id. at 412-13). During 2008, Starks visited the emergency room a number of times due to abdominal and chest pains. ( Id. at 352, 355, 357, 359, 361, 365, 523-24, 530, 535).

On September 5, 2008, Starks treated with Pedro Dammert, M.D., a specialist in internal medicine who he had first seen in late 2007. (R. at 365, 407, 409, 416). Starks complained of insomnia and tightness in his chest. ( Id. at 365). While Dr. Dammert found that his Crohn's disease was "better, " he opined that Starks was highly anxious, and noted that his chest pain was probably related to this anxiety. ( Id. ).

On November 14, 2008, Starks again complained of insomnia and tightness in his chest. (R. at 367). Dr. Dammert noted that Starks's Crohn's disease was "not ac-tive." ( Id. ). Dr. Dammert also reported that Starks was still having "attacks" related to his ...


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