United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
TAMMI S. BELL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
STACI M. YANDLE, District Judge.
In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Tammi S. Bell seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.
Plaintiff applied for benefits in March, 2011, alleging disability beginning on January 11, 2010. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Stuart T. Janney denied the application in a written decision dated February 22, 2013. (Tr. 12-23). 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 points:
1. The ALJ erred in weighing the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Graham.
2. The ALJ failed to set forth a legitimate rationale for his adverse credibility determination.
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).
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). "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.
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 Commissioner 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 recognize that the scope of 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 Ms. Bell was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, 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)).
The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427 (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. Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 310-311 (7th Cir. 2012). 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 Janney followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had not worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. He found that plaintiff had severe impairments of left clavicle fracture, right acromioclavicular ("AC") joint arthritis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and a history of obesity. He further determined that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.
The ALJ found that Ms. Bell had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level, with a number of physical limitations. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was able to do her past relevant work as a surveyor as that job is generally performed. She was also able to do her past relevant work as a cashier and fast food worker as actually performed by her and as generally performed. She was, therefore, not disabled.
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 plaintiff and is confined to the relevant time period.
1. Agency Forms
Plaintiff was born in 1961, and was 48 years old on the alleged onset date of January 11, 2010. She was insured for DIB through December 31, 2013. (Tr. 141). She had completed one year of college and training in heating and air conditioning installation. (Tr. 146). She had worked in the past as a cashier, heating and air conditioning installer, surveyor's assistant and waitress. (Tr. 146).
Plaintiff submitted a Function Report in April, 2011, in which she stated that she was unable to walk or stand for long periods or to lift and carry heavy items due to back pain. She had pain in her left shoulder area because of a collar bone break which had healed incorrectly. She reported that she tried to do daily activities as she was able, such as folding laundry and light dusting, but she had to stop every half hour for an hour or so. (Tr. 155-168).
After her application was initially denied, plaintiff submitted a Disability Report-Appeal form in which she said she had gotten worse since her last report. She no longer did much around the house because, after any type of physical activity, she was in so much pain that she could not walk or get out of bed for several days. She was taking a number of medications, which made her ...