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Coffey v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

August 5, 2016

JACKIE COFFEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CLIFFORD J. PROUD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Jackie Coffey seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying the application of her late father for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff’s father Curtis Westerman applied for benefits in February 2012, alleging disability beginning on September 30, 2011. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Lee Lewin denied the application in a written decision dated August 23, 2013. (Tr. 8-19). The Appeals Council denied review, and the August 23, 2013, decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1).

         Mr. Westerman passed away on December 4, 2013. See, Doc. 21, p. 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 improperly classified Mr. Westerman’s high blood pressure as a non-severe impairment.
2. The ALJ failed to include the effects of Mr. Westerman’s right hand tremor in the RFC assessment.
3. The medical expert refused to answer questions in terms of specific work-related functional abilities.
4. The ALJ asked the vocational expert a hypothetical question that did not state limitations in terms of specific work-related functional abilities.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[2] 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 Mr. Westerman 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); Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014). At the same time, 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 Lewin followed the five-step analytical framework described above. She determined that claimant had not worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that he was insured for DIB through December 31, 2016.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Westerman had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; obesity; history of discectomy and fusion in the cervical spine; history of right carpal tunnel syndrome release; osteoarthritis of the knees and hips; and tremors in the right hand. She further determined that his impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Westerman had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level with some physical limitations. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Westerman could not do his past work, but he was not disabled because he was able to do several jobs which exist in significant numbers in the local 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 ...


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