United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
CYNTHIA L. ALLEN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM and ORDER
J. PHIL GILBERT, District Judge.
In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Cynthia L. Allen 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) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.
Plaintiff applied for benefits in August, 2008, alleging disability beginning on February 28, 2006. (Tr. 14). After an ALJ denied her application and the Appeals Council denied review, she sought judicial review in this Court. The Commissioner agreed that the case should be remanded for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §405(g). See, Allen v. Astrue, Case No. 11-1100-CJP, Docs. 26-28.
After remand, ALJ Stuart T. Janney was assigned to the case. After holding an evidentiary hearing, he denied the application for benefits in a decision dated July 9, 2013. (Tr. 776-794). The July 9, 2013, decision is the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial review. 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 created an "evidentiary deficit" by rejecting all of the medical opinions, and then relied upon his own independent medical determination to assess plaintiff's RFC.
2. The ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinions.
3. The ALJ did not properly assess plaintiff's symptoms.
4. The ALJ's credibility analysis was erroneous.
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). For a DIB claim, a claimant must establish that she was disabled as of her date last insured. Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997).
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. Allen 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. 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 Janney followed the five-step framework described above. He determined that Ms. Allen had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of February 28, 2006, through her date last insured, March 31, 2010. He found that plaintiff had severe impairments of cystocele, rectocele, bladder prolapse, and pelvic floor weakness; fibroid uterus status post total hysterectomy; episode of sepsis and respiratory failure; osteoarthritis of the hands; fibromyalgia syndrome; degenerative disc disease; level I obesity; and carpal tunnel syndrome. He further determined that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.
The ALJ found plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform work at the sedentary level, limited to frequent handling and fingering with the bilateral upper extremities. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do her past work. However, she was not disabled because she was able to do other work that exists in significant numbers in the regional and national economies.
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 1964, and was 41 years old on the alleged onset date of February 28, 2006. She was insured for DIB through March 31, 2010. (Tr. 118).
In her initial Disability Report, plaintiff said she was unable to work because of a bladder prolapse and pelvic floor muscle disorder. She said she stopped working on February 28, 2006, because she got pregnant and "the above conditions started." (Tr. 122).
In September, 2008, Ms. Allen submitted a Function Report. She lived with her husband and two sons. One son was a teenager, and the second was two years old. She said that she took care of the two year old, and did some housework such as laundry, light cleaning and dusting. She made simple meals. She said that she had to go slowly, and could not lift anything over twenty pounds. Sitting for more than a half ...