United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARY M. ROWLAND, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Judy Rios filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 423 et seq., 1381 et seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and have filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
I. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
To recover DIB or SSI, a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. 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 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. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In determining 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. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520, 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 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
Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB on September 15, 2009, alleging that she became disabled on February 28, 2006, because a combination of bipolar disorder, mood swings, depression, and anxiety prevented her from working. (R. at 11, 107, 108, 154, 158, 226). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. ( Id. at 11, 107-10, 116-38). On April 5, 2011, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ( Id. at 11, 58-106). The ALJ also heard testimony from Larry M. Kravitz, Ph.D., a medical expert (ME), and Thomas A. Gusloff, a vocational expert (VE). ( Id. )
The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on May 25, 2011. (R. at 11-20). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 28, 2006, the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 13). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and polysubstance abuse with physiological dependence, in reported remission, are severe impairments. ( Id. ). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. ( Id. at 14-15).
The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) and determined that she has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with some nonexertional limitations: "her work should be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks requiring only brief and superficial interaction with the public and/or co-workers." (R. at 15). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. ( Id. at 18-19). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education and work experience, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including counter supply worker, industrial cleaner, and laundry laborer. ( Id. at 19-20). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. ( Id. at 20).
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 25, 2012. (R. at 1-3). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. 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 § 405(g) of the SSA. 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 § 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) (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 meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).
IV. MEDICAL EVIDENCE
Plaintiff was initially diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1989. (R. at 396). She was prescribed Prozac in 2001, and by January 2004, she was taking Zyprexa. ( Id. at 317, 321). Plaintiff asserts that by February 28, 2006, her bipolar disorder prevented her from working full time. ( Id. at 226).
On March 9, 2007, Nagarakanti Nageswara Rao, M.D., found that Plaintiff was doing much better managing her bipolar disorder, and was able to sleep well. (R. at 343). Dr. Rao also noted that Plaintiff was alert and oriented, had no thought disorder, remained stable, and had an ...