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Oakleyy v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

August 15, 2016

MARY J. OAKLEY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Mary J. Oakley seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for benefits in January 2010, alleging disability beginning on November 15, 2009. (Tr. 149). After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Stuart T. Janney denied the application in a written decision dated January 31, 2012. (Tr. 26-38). Plaintiff sought judicial review of that final decision; the parties agreed to a remand pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §405(g). (Tr. 806).

         On remand, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to further evaluate plaintiff’s mental impairments, determine whether drug addiction and alcoholism are contributing factors, and, if warranted, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert. (Tr. 809-810). The case was again assigned to ALJ Janney, who denied the application on March 2, 2015. (Tr. 1157-1171). The March 2, 2015, decision is the final decision 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 failed to consider the combined effects of plaintiff’s impairments.
2. The ALJ failed to account for plaintiff’s limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and her limitations in interacting with supervisors and coworkers.
3. The ALJ failed to explain why he rejected plaintiff’s alleged physical limitations and he gave significant weight to the opinions of the state agency physicians, but they did not consider all of the medical evidence.
4. The ALJ’s credibility analysis was patently wrong.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI, 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 Ms. Oakley 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 Janney followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had worked since the alleged onset date, but that work did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity. He found that plaintiff had severe impairments of status-post TIA-like episode; degenerative joint disease of the bilateral hips, bilateral hands, and bilateral shoulders; degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine; grade I diastolic dysfunction; patent foraminal ovale; ganglion cyst; COPD with resulting pulmonary insufficiency; bipolar disorder; alcoholism; generalized anxiety disorder; and narcissistic personality disorder. He further determined that plaintiff’s impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Oakley had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level, with a number of physical and mental limitations. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do her past relevant work. She was, however, not disabled because she was able to do other 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 is directed to the points raised by plaintiff and is confined to the relevant time period.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born in 1962, and was almost 48 years old on the alleged onset date of November 15, 2009. (Tr. 184). She alleged disability because of COPD, emphysema, arthritis in right hip and right knee, fluid build-up in left wrist, anxiety, and depression. She was 5’4” tall and weighed 135 pounds. (Tr. 189). She had worked as a cashier, line server in a restaurant, landscaper and cleaner. (Tr. 191).

         Plaintiff submitted a Function Report in January 2010. She stated that she had severe breathing problems and that she had severe pain in her hips and back if she spent too much time standing, sitting, or walking. She did housework in increments, and only did what she had to do. She had been diagnosed with adjustment disorder mixed with anxiety and depression. She ...

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