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Cox v. Colvin

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

April 10, 2015

ROBERT ALLEN COX, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Robert Allen Cox ("Plaintiff" or "Cox") seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits in a March 1, 2012 written decision. Cox appealed the ruling to this Court and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment that seeks to reverse the Commissioner's decision. The Commissioner filed a cross-motion. The Court has carefully reviewed the administrative record but omits a detailed description of it. The parties have outlined the record in their briefs and are thoroughly familiar with the relevant evidence.

I. Legal Standard

A. The Social Security Administration Standard

In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled. An individual does so by showing that he cannot "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. § 4243(d)(1)(A). Gainful activity is defined as "the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") applies a five-step analysis to disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The SSA first considers whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity during the claimed period of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). It then determines at Step 2 whether the claimant's physical or mental impairment is severe and meets the twelve-month durational requirement noted above. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At Step 3, the SSA compares the impairment (or combination of impairments) found at Step 2 to a list of impairments identified in the regulations ("the Listings"). The specific criteria that must be met to satisfy a Listing are described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairments meet or "medically equal" a Listing, the individual is considered to be disabled, and the analysis concludes; if a Listing is not met, the analysis proceeds to Step 4. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

Before addressing the fourth step, the SSA must assess a claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which defines his exertional and non-exertional capacity to work. The SSA then determines at the fourth step whether the claimant is able to engage in any of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can do so, he is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot undertake past work, the SSA proceeds to Step 5 to determine whether a substantial number of jobs exist that the claimant can perform in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. An individual is not disabled if he can do work that is available under this standard. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

B. Standard of Review

A claimant who is found to be "not disabled" may challenge the Commissioner's final decision in federal court. Judicial review of an ALJ's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "[t]he 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). Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A court reviews the entire record, but it does not displace the ALJ's judgment by reweighing the facts or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Instead, the court looks at whether the ALJ articulated an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence to her conclusions. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). This requirement is designed to allow a reviewing court to "assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford a claimant meaningful judicial review." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). Thus, even if reasonable minds could differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, courts will affirm a decision if the ALJ's opinion is adequately explained and supported by substantial evidence. Elder, 529 F.3d at 413 (citation omitted).

C. The ALJ's Decision

Following the familiar five-step analysis, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Janice Brunning found at Step 1 that Cox had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 21, 2009.[1] She found at Step 2 that Cox suffered from the severe impairments of depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). Neither of these impairments met or medically equaled a listing at Step 3, either singly or in combination. Before moving to Step 4, the ALJ found that Cox was not credible concerning the severity of his symptoms. She also assessed his residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The ALJ concluded that Cox could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels. Several non-exertional limitations were imposed. These included work that is "simple, repetitive and routine and does not involve more than two to three steps and is performed in a work environment exclusive of public contact or more than occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors." (R. 23). The ALJ found at Step 4 that Cox could perform his past relevant work. In the alternative, she concluded that other jobs existed in the national economy that he could perform if a Step 5 analysis were required. Thus the ALJ concluded that Cox was not disabled.

II. Discussion

Cox claims that the ALJ erred by (1) incorrectly assessing his credibility, (2) failing to provide reasons for discounting the opinion of a medical source, and (3) insufficiently stating reasons for the RFC. The Court addresses each claim in turn.

A. Credibility

If an ALJ finds that a medical impairment exists that could be expected to produce a claimant's alleged condition, he must then assess how the individual's symptoms affect his ability to work. SSR 96-7p. The fact that a claimant's subjective complaints are not fully substantiated by the record is not a sufficient reason to find that he is not credible. The ALJ must consider the entire record and "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion." Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). Factors that should be considered include the objective medical evidence, the claimant's daily activities, allegations of pain, any aggravating factors, the types of treatment received, any medications taken, and functional limitations. Prochaska v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2006); see also 20 ...


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