United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
DEBRA E. McDANIEL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM and ORDER
DAVID R. HERNDON, Chief District Judge.
In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Debra E. McDaniel seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.
Plaintiff applied for benefits in June, 2009, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2000. (Tr. 11). After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Joseph L. Heimann denied the application for benefits in a decision dated May 25, 2011. (Tr. 11-20). The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1). Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.
Issues Raised by Plaintiff
Plaintiff raises the following points:
1. The ALJ erred in determining plaintiff's RFC by failing to include all limitations supported by the evidence and by improperly analyzing the medical records.
2. The ALJ failed to properly evaluate plaintiff's credibility.
Applicable Legal Standards
To qualify for SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. For these purposes, "disabled" means the "inability to 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. §423(d)(1)(A).
A "physical or mental impairment" is an impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3). "Substantial gainful activity" is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities, and that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572.
Social Security regulations set forth a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. Under this procedure, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is serious; (3) whether the impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged to be conclusively disabling; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, given his or her age, education and work experience. Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-513 (7th Cir. 2009); Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992).
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained this process as follows:
The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation continues. The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not disabled. The fifth step assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work. If the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled.
Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-569 (7th Cir. 2011).
This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to ensure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. It is important to recognize that the scope of review is limited. "The 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). Thus, this Court must determine not whether Ms. McDaniel was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, but whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether any errors of law were made. See, Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995)).
The Supreme Court has defined substantial evidence as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the entire administrative record is taken into consideration, but this Court does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384, 1390 (7th Cir. 1997). However, while judicial review is deferential, it is not abject; this Court does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. See, Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010), and cases cited therein.
The Decision of the ALJ
ALJ Heimann followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that Ms. McDaniel had only been sporadically employed in the past and that none of her work rose to the level of substantial gainful activity. He found that she had severe impairments of cervical spine narrowing and spondylosis, mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral spine, old fractures of the clavicles, minimal obstructive lung disease, mild coronary artery disease, personality disorder not otherwise specified, and a history of alcohol and substance abuse. He determined that her substance abuse was in remission and did not adversely affect her overall mental status or functioning. He further determined that her impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.
The ALJ found that Ms. McDaniel's allegations about her impairments and limitations were not credible. He determined that she had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level, with some physical and mental limitations. She had no past relevant work. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled because she was able to do jobs which exist in significant numbers in the local and national economies.
The Evidentiary Record
The Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the record is ...