United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division
CORRIE B. DIAZ, a.k.a. Corrie B. Pickett, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
SARA DARROW, District Judge.
Plaintiff Corrie B. Diaz, also known as Corrie B. Pickett,  appeals the final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner"), denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. This matter comes before the Court on the Plaintiff's motion Requesting Reversal and Remand, ECF No. 12, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance, ECF No. 17. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion for reversal and remand and DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance.
Diaz filed applications for SSI on August 27, 2009, and DIB on October 22, 2009, alleging that she became disabled as of April 1, 2008. R. 141. Both applications were denied on February 22, 2010. Id. Diaz requested reconsideration; her claims were denied a second time on June 14, 2010. Id. She requested a hearing, which was held via video conference on August 18, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robert C. Asbille. Id. On August 26, 2011, Asbille issued a decision finding that Diaz had six severe impairments-"bad back, sore foot, bipolar disorder, anxiety, personality disorder, and substance abuse"-but could still work under certain limitations and therefore was ineligible for benefits. See R. 155. Diaz appealed to the Appeals Council, which issued an order on May 29, 2012, vacating and remanding ALJ Asbille's decision. R. 163-64. Specifically, the Appeals Council remanded the case (1) for clarification of the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment as to the frequency and length of time Diaz would have to alternate between sitting and standing, and (2) for the vocational expert to reconcile his testimony that Diaz could perform the jobs of assembler and general office clerk with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which does not specifically address the sit/stand option. R. 163.
On remand, Diaz's case came before ALJ Shreese M. Wilson. A hearing was held via video conference on September 18, 2012, at which Diaz testified as well as Alfred Walker, a vocational expert. R. 14. ALJ Wilson found that Diaz had five severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis of the foot, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and a personality disorder. R. 16. The ALJ found that these impairments or combination thereof did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926) ("Listing of Impairments"). R. 17. ALJ Wilson also found that Diaz retained the RFC to perform "sedentary work" as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), with the following additional limitations:
[Diaz] must alternate sitting and standing once an hour for 5 minutes, she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, she can work with minimal contact with the general public and no more than occasional contact with co-workers or supervisors, and she is limited to tasks learned within 30 days that are routine and repetitive in nature, in a low-stress environment (no more than occasional decision-making or changes in the work setting).
R. 18. Based on Walker's testimony, ALJ Wilson found that there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Diaz could perform, such as ticket checker, addresser, and document preparer. R. 21-22. As a result of this analysis, the ALJ found that Diaz was not disabled from April 1, 2008, through the date of her decision, October 11, 2012. R. 22. The Appeals Council granted review of ALJ Wilson's decision on the grounds that she failed to sufficiently examine the impact of Diaz's obesity. R. 313-15. In the final administrative decision in this case, on March 12, 2013, the Appeals Council examined Diaz's obesity and nevertheless concluded that she was not disabled, adopting most of ALJ's Wilson's findings, including those on Diaz's mental impairments. R. 4-7. Diaz filed the instant action on April 11, 2013, requesting the Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. District Court Review of the ALJ Decision
A court's function on review is not to try the case de novo or to supplant the ALJ's findings with the court's own assessment of the evidence. See Schmidt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 970, 972 (7th Cir. 2000); Pugh v. Bowen, 870 F.2d 1271, 1274 (7th Cir. 1989). Instead, the court's role is to determine whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Cannon v. Apfel, 213 F.3d 970, 975 (7th Cir. 2000). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court reviews the record as a whole but does not reconsider facts, reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in evidence, or decide questions of credibility. See id. (citing Williams v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1066, 1072 (7th Cir. 1999)). Substantial evidence is defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Henderson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 507, 512 (7th Cir. 1999). Even if reasonable minds could differ concerning a disability determination, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is adequately supported. See Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Indeed, "[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); Powers v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 431, 434 (7th Cir. 2000).
Although great deference is afforded to the determination made by the ALJ, a court does not "merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). Rather, the ALJ's decision must "sufficiently articulate their assessment of the evidence to assure us that they considered the important evidence and to enable us to trace the path of their reasoning." Id. at 595 (quoting Hickman v. Apfel, 187 F.3d 683, 689 (7th Cir. 1999)). The ALJ has a duty to "minimally articulate his or her justification for rejecting or accepting specific evidence of disability." Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Steward v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1295, 1299 (7th Cir. 1988)).
Further, the ALJ's decision must build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the ultimate conclusions. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010); Scott, 297 F.3d at 595. "Although the ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record, he must confront the evidence that does not support his conclusion and explain why it was rejected." Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 474 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Kararsky v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 539, 543 (7th Cir. 2002)). If there is an error of law, "reversal is, of course, warranted irrespective of the volume of evidence supporting the factual findings." Schmoll v. Harris, 636 F.2d 1146, 1150 (7th Cir. 1980).
II. Entitlement to Benefits
In order to be entitled to DIB and/or SSI, a claimant must show that his inability to work is medical in nature and that he is totally disabled. Economic conditions, personal factors, financial considerations, and attitudes of employers are irrelevant in determining whether a claimant is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, ...