United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Helen Mangan ("Plaintiff" or "Mangan") seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, and Mangan filed a Motion for Summary Judgment that seeks to reverse the Commissioner's decision. The Commissioner filed a cross-motion. The parties have consented to have this Court conduct all proceedings in this case, including an entry of final judgment. 28 U.S.C. § 636(e); N.D.Ill. R. 73.1(c). For the reasons stated below, both motions are granted in part and denied in part.
I. Legal Standard
A. The Social Security Administration Standard
In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled. An individual does so by showing that he cannot "engage in 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." 42 U.S.C. § 4243(d)(1)(A). Gainful activity is defined as "the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b).
The Social Security Administration ("SSA") applies a five-step analysis to disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The SSA first considers whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity during the claimed period of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). It then determines at Step 2 whether the claimant's physical or mental impairment is severe and meets the twelve-month durational requirement noted above. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At Step 3, the SSA compares the impairment (or combination of impairments) found at Step 2 to a list of impairments identified in the regulations ("the Listings"). The specific criteria that must be met to satisfy a Listing are described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairments meet or "medically equal" a Listing, the individual is considered to be disabled, and the analysis concludes; if a Listing is not met, the analysis proceeds to Step 4. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
Before addressing the fourth step, the SSA must assess a claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which defines his exertional and non-exertional ability to work. The SSA then determines at the fourth step whether the claimant is able to engage in any of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can do so, he is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot undertake past work, the SSA proceeds to Step 5 to determine whether a substantial number of jobs exist that the claimant can perform in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. An individual is not disabled if he can do work that is available under this standard. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).
B. Standard of Review
A claimant who is found to be "not disabled" may challenge the Commissioner's final decision in federal court. Judicial review of an ALJ's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A court reviews the entire record, but it does not displace the ALJ's judgment by reweighing the facts or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Instead, the court looks at whether the ALJ articulated an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence to her conclusions. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). This requirement is designed to allow a reviewing court to "assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford a claimant meaningful judicial review." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). Thus, even if reasonable minds could differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, courts will affirm a decision if the ALJ's opinion is adequately explained and supported by substantial evidence. Elder, 529 F.3d at 413 (citation omitted).
II. Background Facts
A. Medical History
Mangan claims that she became disabled in November 2009 when she allegedly became blind. (R. 105). In November 2009, she saw neuro-ophthalmologist Dr. John Pula for complaints of photosensitivity, blurred vision, and right eye pain with movement. Her distance vision was measured as 20/50. Dr. Pula noted that Mangan had also begun experiencing numbness in her left hand in September 2009. He diagnosed Mangan with optic neuropathy OD, possible optic neuritis, and left arm numbness that might be related to her optic problems. Dr. Pula recommended that she receive an MRI of her brain. (R. 246).
The MRI indicated lesions of white matter in Mangan's brain that suggested a number of possible disorders, including multiple sclerosis ("MS"). (R. 304). Plaintiff followed up with Dr. Pula in December. He noted that her optic neuropathy suggested that Mangan was at high risk for developing MS. As a result, he began her on immunomodulatory therapy by prescribing the interferon beta-lb medication Betaseron. (R. 248). Dr. Pula noted in January 2010 that Mangan was fatigued, but she had not experienced a new MS attack. (R. 428). He diagnosed her with relapsing/remitting MS. By March 2010, Plaintiff's vision had returned to 20/20 in both eyes, and her visual fields had improved. Dr. Pula concluded that Mangan's optic neuritis had been resolved. (R. 400). No new MS attacks appeared by June 2010, though Plaintiff did experience some back pain and arm/leg numbness. Mangan had no photophobia, exhibited normal strength, and was fully ambulatory. (R. 430).
Ophthalmologist Dr. James Knupp agreed in October 2010 that Mangan's vision had fully returned to the 20/20 level and that MS was the most likely diagnosis for her condition. He concluded that no further ophthalmologic intervention was necessary. (R. 445). At her January 2011 follow up, Dr. Pula again stated that Mangan was experiencing headaches and had not obtained relief through a variety of medications. However, her ability to walk was normal without assistance, and she exhibited a strength level of 5/5 for all major muscle groups. Her gait was also normal. No positive Romberg signs, which measure the body's sense of positioning, were seen. (R. 428).
Dr. Pula did not associate Mangan's muscular pain with MS. In February 2011, she saw her treating physician Dr. Jennifer Tieman, complaining of lower-back and mid-back pain that radiated to her ribs. Dr. Tieman noted a full range of motion in her back, though Mangan had some tingling on bending. She showed a 5/5 level of motor strength for her upper and lower extremities. (R. 474). An MRI exam of the lower spine only indicated a "small tiny focal disc protrusion." All other aspects of Mangan's spine were normal. (R. 454).
B. Hearing Testimony
Mangan appeared at an April 9, 2011 hearing held before ALJ Patricia Supergan. Mangan was 27 years old, stood five feet and four inches high, and weighed 200 pounds. She stopped working in 2008 when she was laid off as a food packager. Plaintiff testified in brief terms that she performs few tasks around the house. Her boyfriend cleans and cooks meals. Plaintiff's neighbor helps get her children ready for school. She takes Betaseron for MS and Vicodin for headaches. Mangan described her headaches as severe. She needs to wear eyeglasses, but they broke two-and-a-half years ago. Plaintiff did not have them repaired. (R. 490-96).
C. Physician Reports
In February 2010, state agency physician Dr. Sandra Bilinsky issued a physical RFC assessment for Mangan, finding that she could work at the medium exertional level. She could lift 50 pounds occasionally, and 25 pounds frequently. Mangan was able to sit, stand, and walk about six hours in an eight-hour workday. Dr. Bilinsky found that no other exertional or non-exertional restrictions were needed. No environmental ...