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Stark v. Colvin

United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division

January 22, 2015

SHERRI A. STARK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

HON. MARIA VALDEZ, United States Magistrate Judge

This action was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Sherri Stark’s claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 15] is granted in part and denied in part, and the Commissioner’s cross-motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 22] is denied.

BACKGROUND

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On June 12, 2009, Stark filed a claim for disability benefits, alleging disability since March 21, 2009 due to degenerative disk disease, disk bulging, ankle enthesopathy following numerous surgeries, spinal pain, and fibromyalgia. The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on November 18, 2010. Claimant personally appeared and testified at the hearing and was represented by a non-attorney representative. Medical expert Bernard Stevens, M.D. and vocational expert Edward Steffan also testified.

On January 12, 2011, the ALJ denied Claimant’s claim for benefits, finding her not disabled under the Social Security Act. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council then denied Claimant’s request for review, leaving the ALJ’s decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

II. ALJ DECISION

The ALJ found at step one that Stark had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of March 21, 2009. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Claimant had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, fibromyalgia, status post multiple foot surgeries for neuromas and bone deformities, and depression. The ALJ concluded at step three that her impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal a Listing. The ALJ then determined that Stark retained the RFC to perform sedentary work with limitations on climbing, exposure to unprotected heights or uneven terrain. In addition, Plaintiff was limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks without specification as to the number of steps required to complete the task; low stress work with only occasional changes in the work setting; and only occasional interaction with coworkers. At step five, based upon the VE's testimony and Stark’s age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ concluded that Claimant can perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, leading to a finding that she is not disabled under the Social Security Act.

DISCUSSION

I. ALJ LEGAL STANDARD

Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if she has an “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ considers the following five questions 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 ...


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