United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARIA VALDEZ, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Maria Arroyo ("Plaintiff") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), which denied her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 23] and grants the Commissioner's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 26].
I. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL HISTORY
Plaintiff suffered from two strokes in 2000 and claims that she is functionally limited due to the residual effects of those strokes. Despite those limitations, however, Plaintiff was able to continue working as a factory assembly worker until 2009, when she was laid off. Plaintiff then filed an application for SSDI benefits on August 26, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of February 5, 2009. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Accordingly, she requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), who found that Plaintiff was not disabled at Step Four of the Social Security Administration's sequential analysis.
At the hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: post-stroke and left-lower-extremity weakness; obesity; mild degenerative disease in the left knee; mild degenerative disease in the lumbar spine; and a need for blood coagulation therapy. (R. 22.) After determining that Plaintiff did not meet any listed impairment, the ALJ calculated Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") and found that Plaintiff could perform light sedentary work. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can stand and walk no more than two hours in an eight-hour day, lift and carry no more than ten pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently, and perform postural movements such as stooping, crouching, and kneeling no more than occasionally. (R. 23.) In addition, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff cannot work with knives or in other situations where being cut is likely (due to her blood clotting issues) and that she is unable to maintain the attention or concentration necessary to perform complex tasks (due to her alleged pain).
The ALJ then consulted with a Vocational Expert ("VE") to determine if Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work or any jobs in the national economy. On the basis of his RFC assessment and the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a factory assembly worker, and, furthermore, that she can work other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 28.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
I. ALJ LEGAL STANDARD
Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if she is unable "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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ conducts a five-step analysis and considers the following in order: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Does the claimant have a severe impairment? (3) Does the impairment meet or medically equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation? and (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
An affirmative answer at either step 3 or step 5 leads to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992). A negative answer at any step, other than at step 3, precludes a finding of disability. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps 1-4. Id. Once the claimant shows an inability to perform past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant's ability to engage in other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.
II. JUDICIAL REVIEW
Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence or based upon legal error. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Under this standard, the ALJ is not required to address "every piece of evidence or testimony in the record, [but] the ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind her decision to deny benefits." Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001). Rather, the ALJ must simply "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, " Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872, and minimally articulate the "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).
On appeal, a court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Skinner, 478 F.3d at 841. Thus, where conflicting evidence would allow reasonable minds to differ, the court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. See Herr v. Sullivan, 912 F.2d 178, 181 (7th Cir. 1990).
On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor based upon proper legal standards, asserting: (1) the ALJ disregarded medical evidence that supports a lower RFC determination; (2) the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physicians; (3) the ALJ improperly determined that Plaintiff's claims of pain were not credible; (4) the hearing was deficient because there was not a consultative examiner present; (5) the VE used a flawed hypothetical that failed to account for Plaintiff's impairments; and (6) the VE failed to establish the existence of other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. The Court addresses each issue in turn.
A. The ALJ's Step Four Determinations
1. The ALJ Did Not Disregard Substantial Medical Evidence
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ disregarded medical signs and evidence that indicate she is further functionally limited than the ALJ found her to be. In particular, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ did not evaluate the opinions of four physicians: Dr. Procento (Plaintiff's primary physician); Dr. Castle (a neurologist); Dr. Saikh (a physical therapist); and Dr. Cavanaugh (a rehabilitation specialist) - all of whom allegedly noticed that Plaintiff suffered from a limp and foot drop and that she required a cane and leg brace to walk. Thus, according to Plaintiff, the ALJ ...