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Morales v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 25, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

For Brandi M Morales, Plaintiff: Richard D. Murray, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Kenneth D. Rose & Associates, Ltd., Generally Admitted, Anna, IL.

For Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Anne M. Kenny-Kleinman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the General Counsel - Chicago, IL, Chicago, IL; Jennifer D.L. Hudson, LEAD ATTORNEY, Assistant U.S. Attorney - Fairview Heights, Fairview Heights, IL.



In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Brandi M. Morales is before the Court, represented by counsel, seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB).

Procedural History

Plaintiff applied for DIB on May 17, 2010. She alleged disability beginning on December 28, 2006. (Tr. 11). After holding a hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) James E. Craig denied the applications in a decision dated May 8, 2012. (Tr. 11-26). 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 issues:

1. The ALJ erred in his determination of plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC).
2. The ALJ erred in his failure to obtain testimony from a vocational expert and his usage of the medical-vocational guidelines.
3. The ALJ erred in his assessment of plaintiff's credibility.
4. The ALJ failed to properly consider plaintiff's mental impairments, in particular in the realm of social functioning.

Applicable Legal Standards

To qualify for DIB, 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) and 1382c(a)(3)(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) and 1382c(a)(3)(C). " 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. 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).

Stated another way, 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. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-513 (7th Cir. 2009); Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992).

If the answer at steps one and two is " yes, " the claimant will automatically be found disabled if he or she suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment at step three, and cannot perform his or her past work (step four), the burden shifts to the Secretary at step five to show that the claimant can perform some other job. Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984). See also, Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001)(Under the five-step evaluation, an " affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled.... If a claimant reaches step 5, the burden shifts to the ALJ to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.").

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 understand that the scope of judicial 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 plaintiff was, in fact, disabled, 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)). This Court uses the Supreme Court's definition of substantial evidence, i.e., " such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (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 Craig followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of spinal disorder, obesity, personality disorder, depression and anxiety. The ALJ further determined that these impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of work at the sedentary level with no limitations. Based on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ found that plaintiff was able to perform jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national and local economy. (Tr. 11-26).

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 directed to the points raised by the plaintiff.

1. Agency Forms

Plaintiff was born in December, 1976 and was 35 years old when ALJ Craig issued his decision. (Tr. 101). Plaintiff obtained a GED and had specialized training in phlebotomy and as a nursing unit clerk. (Tr. 106). She was 5'8" tall and weighed 305 pounds. (Tr. 105).

According to plaintiff she had a number of health problems that made her unable to work including major depression and isolation with paranoia at times, anxiety, a spinal injury with severe pain and " electricity, " and arthritis. (Tr. 105). Plaintiff previously worked as a registrar and a clerical support clerk in a hospital, a file clerk, a nursing unit clerk, and a phlebotomist. (Tr. 106). She took several medications and as of December, 2011, she was taking Synthroid for hypothyroidism, Wellbutrin for depression, Lopressor for high blood pressure, Lasix for edema, Xanax for anxiety and panic attacks, Norco for pain, Robaxin for muscle spasms, and Neurontin for nerve pain. (Tr. 222).

Plaintiff submitted two Function Reports in 2010. (Tr. 124-34, 171-79). She stated she had a spinal injury that caused pain, numbness, burning, and electricity throughout her body. Additionally, she stated she had major depression, severe anxiety, panic, and isolation. (Tr. 124, 171). Her mom helped her with her two children. (Tr. 125, 172). She prepared quick and simple meals. The only household chores she performed regularly were vacuuming and doing laundry. (Tr. 126, 173). She was able to drive a car and shop for groceries. (Tr. 127, 174).

Plaintiff stated that her anxiety, depression, and panic attacks kept her from leaving the house frequently. (Tr. 171). She reported having difficulties lifting, squatting, bending, standing, reaching, walking, sitting, kneeling, talking to others, climbing stairs, completing tasks, concentrating, following instructions, and using her hands. (Tr. 129, 176). She stated her ...

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