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Walen v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

November 24, 2014

TAMMY WALEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JEFFERY COLE, Magistrate Judge.

The plaintiff, Tammy Walen (incorrectly docketed as Tammy Walen (Dkt. #1)), seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner ("Commissioner") of the Social Security Administration ("Agency") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2). Ms. Walen asks the court to reverse and remand the Commissioner's decision, while the Commissioner seeks an order affirming the decision.[1]


Ms. Walen applied for DIB on September 21, 2010, alleging that she has been disabled since June 10, 2010, due to heart problems and a thyroid condition. (Administrative Record ("R") 187-93, 204). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, she appeared before an administrative law judge for a hearing on her claim on January 25, 2012. (R. 51-88). Ms. Walen was represented by counsel at her hearing; in addition, Ellen Rosenfeld, a psychologist, testified as a medical expert and Thomas Dunleavy testified as a vocational expert. (R. 52).

On April 26, 2012, the ALJ determined that Ms. Walen's was disabled and unable to perform any work from June 10, 2010, until August 22, 2011, as a result of Grave's disease, hyperthyroidism, anxiety, and depression. (R. 37, 41). But the ALJ also found that, as of August 23, 2011, Ms. Walen experienced medical improvement and was no longer disabled. As of that date, she was able to perform a limited range of light work, that involved only simple, routine, repetitive, and predictable tasks; did not involve more than occasional contact with supervisors; involved only incidental contact with the general public; and did not involve undertaking any shared tasks with co-workers. (R. 43). This allowed Ms. Walen to perform jobs like housekeeper/cleaner, cafeteria attendant, and laundry sorter, all which existed in significant numbers in the regional economy. (R. 45). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on July 17, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Ms. Walen's request for review. (R. 1-6). See 20 C.F.R. §§404.955; 404.981. Ms. Walen's appealed that decision by filing suit in this Court under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), and both parties consented to jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c).



The Standard of Review

The applicable standard of review of the Commissioner's decision is a familiar one. The court must affirm the decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008), citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The court may not reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Terry v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471, 475 (7th Cir. 2009); Berger, 516 F.3d at 544. Where conflicting evidence would allow reasonable minds to differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, it is the ALJ's responsibility to resolve those conflicts. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, (7th Cir. 2008); Binion v. Chater, 108 F.3d 780, 782 (7th Cir. 1997). Conclusions of law are not entitled to such deference, however, so where the Commissioner commits an error of law, the court must reverse the decision regardless of the volume of evidence supporting the factual findings. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).

While the standard of review is deferential, the court cannot act as a mere "rubber stamp" for the Commissioner's decision. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). An ALJ is required to "minimally articulate" the reasons for his decision. Berger, 516 F.3d at 544; Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001). Although the ALJ need not address every piece of evidence, the ALJ cannot limit his discussion to only that evidence that supports his ultimate conclusion. Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 333 (7th Cir. 1994). The ALJ's decision must allow the court to assess the validity of his findings and afford the claimant a meaningful judicial review. Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009). The Seventh Circuit calls this building a "logical bridge" between the evidence and the ALJ's conclusion. Sarchet v. Chater, 78 F.3d 305, 307 (7th Cir. 1996). It has also called this requirement a "lax" one. Berger, 516 F.3d at 544.


The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

The Social Security Regulations provide a five-step sequential inquiry to determine ...

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