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Burrows v. Colvin

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

August 11, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Claimant William Burrows seeks review of the final decision of Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Claimant’s application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 12] is granted, and the Commissioner’s cross-motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 20] is denied.


         On March 15, 2011, Claimant filed an application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2009. (R. 136-42.) The claim was denied initially on June 21, 2011, (R. 76), and upon reconsideration on September 23, 2011. (R. 77.) On September 27, 2011, Claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on December 26, 2012. (R. 24-75.) At that hearing, Claimant, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified. (Id.) A vocational expert and medical expert also appeared and testified. (Id.)

         On January 25, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision. (R. 9-19.) In the decision, the ALJ went through the five-step sequential evaluation process and ultimately found Claimant not disabled under the Act. (R. 19.) At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since May 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. (R. 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). (R. 15.)

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work. (Id.) The ALJ also found that Claimant’s RFC was further limited to lifting/carrying up to ten pounds occasionally and five pounds frequently; standing/walking two hours in an eight-hour workday; sitting about six hours in an eight-hour workday with a sit/stand option at will; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing and stooping, with stooping down to the knees only; frequently climbing of ramps and occasionally climbing of stairs; avoid unprotected heights or dangerous machinery; and should avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants, extremes of cold, wetness, humidity, and vibration. (Id.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Claimant could not perform any of his past relevant work. (R. 18.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant could perform. (R. 18-19.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Claimant could work as an assembler, inspector, or information clerk. (R. 19.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Act. (Id.)


         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner’s final decision if the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). Under such circumstances, the district court reviews the decision of the ALJ. Id. Judicial review is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in reaching her decision. Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A “mere scintilla” of evidence is not enough. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). Even when there is adequate evidence in the record to support the decision, however, the findings will not be upheld if the ALJ does not “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion.” Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). If the Commissioner’s decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot stand. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009).

         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). Though the standard of review is deferential, a reviewing court must “conduct a critical review of the evidence” before affirming the Commissioner’s decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). It may not, however, “displace the ALJ’s judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations.” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Thus, judicial review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings. Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1097. The reviewing court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)

         III. ANALYSIS

         Claimant asserts that the ALJ made five errors. First, Claimant argues that the ALJ’s failed to support his finding with substantial evidence. Second, Claimant argues that the ALJ’s step-three determination was erroneous because his analysis was perfunctory. Third, Claimant argues that the ALJ’s RFC determination was flawed because he failed to consider all of Plaintiff’s impairments. Fourth, Claimant argues that the ALJ’s credibility determination was patently wrong. Finally, Claimant argues that the ALJ failed to properly include in the hypothetical offered to the vocational expert all of his limitations that were supported by the medical record. The Court finds that the ALJ did not support his step two and step three determinations with substantial evidence. Because these conclusions require reversal, the other alleged errors need not be addressed at this time.

         A. The ALJ Failed to Properly Support his Step-Two Determination with Substantial Evidence

         Claimant asserts that the ALJ’s step two determination was erroneous because the ALJ failed to utilize the special technique for review of mental impairments which is required by section 404.1520(a). Listing 12.04, which governs affective disorders, provides that an individual must demonstrate a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome.[1] 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P., App. 1, § 12.04. The required level of severity for these disorders is met when the criteria in both “A” and “B” are satisfied, or when the criteria in “C” are satisfied. (Id.) In order to meet the “A” criteria, there must be medically documented persistence, either continuous or intermittent, in numerous symptoms. (Id.) The “B” criteria are the same for listings 12.00 through 12.08. (Id.) The symptoms must result in at least two of the following “B” criteria: ...

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