United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
ROBERT W. GETTLEMAN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Muneerah Maalik seeks reversal, or in the alternative, a remand of a final decision of the defendant Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), who found that plaintiff was not entitled to supplemental security income ("SSI") and social security disability insurance ("SSDI"). Plaintiff filed the instant motion for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and remands this case to the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").
Plaintiff applied for SSI and SSDI in October 2009, alleging that she had been disabled since June 4, 2009, due to the residual effects of a stroke. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, prompting her to request a hearing before an ALJ. On June 21, 2011, ALJ Marlene Abrams held a hearing at which plaintiff testified, along with a medical expert and vocational expert.
The ALJ issued an opinion on September 21, 2012, denying plaintiff's application. The ALJ determined that while plaintiff could not perform her past work, she was not entitled to disability benefits because she could perform sedentary work, including as an address clerk, account clerk, or quotation clerk. The Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
I. Legal Standards
This court must uphold the final decision of the Commissioner so long as her factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and no error of law occurred. Schoenfeld v. Apfel, 237 F.3d 788, 792 (7th Cir. 2001); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Diaz v. Carter, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995) (internal quotations and citations omitted), and a "mere scintilla" of evidence is not enough. Id. "In addition to relying on substantial evidence, the ALJ must also explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review." Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005). The court does not substitute its own judgment for the Commissioner's by "reconsidering facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence or deciding questions of credibility." Williams v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1066, 1072 (7th Cir. 1999).
In determining whether an individual is disabled for purposes of receiving SSI, the ALJ must follow a five-step sequential process. See, e.g., Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. At step one, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. Moore, 743 at 1121. The ALJ here found that plaintiff was not so engaged, "and therefore the analysis proceeded to the second step, which is a consideration of whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe.'" Id. The ALJ determined at this step that plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: status post middle cerebral artery stroke causing asphasia and initial right hemiparesis; mild asphasia; cognitive disorder, not otherwise specified, and adjustment disorder, not otherwise specified. At step three, the ALJ determined that these severe impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Before proceeding to steps four and five, the ALJ considered plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is "an assessment of what work-related activities [plaintiff] can perform despite her limitations." Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, at 1000-01 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ determined that plaintiff has "the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except: she should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds." The ALJ subsequently turned to step four, concluding that plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work. However, at step five, where the burden shifts to the Commissioner, the ALJ found that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform."
Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's RFC analysis and subsequent finding at step five, arguing that the ALJ's decision is both legally erroneous and not supported by substantial evidence. According to plaintiff, the ALJ's decision should be reversed or remanded because it: (1) violates "20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 and SSR 96-2p by failing to accord appropriate weight to the opinion of the claimaint's treating physician"; (2) fails "to evaluate whether the Claimant's impairment meets and/or equals the criteria of Listing 11.04"; and (3) ignores the ALJ's positive credibility determination in considering plaintiff's "ability to sustain work activities."
A. Treating Physician's Opinion
Plaintiff first argues that in finding that she retained "the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, " the ALJ violated 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 by not giving the appropriate weight to the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Jason Smith. On March 26, 2010, Dr. Smith, who had been treating plaintiff since at least June 10, 2009, filled out a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire (the "report"). The report listed plaintiff's diagnoses as heart failure, myalgia and myositis, and motor neuron disease, and stated that her symptoms included neck, back, and shoulder pain, speech impediment, poor concentration, and balance problems. Dr. Smith noted that ...