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Davis v. Colvin

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

August 22, 2016

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


          Jeffery T. Gilbert United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Sarah Davis ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Carolyn W, Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for disability insurance under Title II of the Social Security Act. In accordance with 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. [ECF No. 12.] Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF No. 16; ECF No. 21.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 16] is denied and the Commissioner's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 21] is granted. The decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.


         Claimant filed an application for disability insurance benefits on February 1, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 26, 2012. (R. 160.) After an initial denial and a denial on reconsideration, Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing. (R. 119.) Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") on January 29, 2013, (R. 52, 56-85, 95.) Claimant's husband Jesse Davis and a Vocational Expert (the "VE") also testified. (R. 86-102.)

         On March 4, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's applications for benefits based on a finding that she was not disabled under the Social Security Act from her alleged onset date through the date of her hearing. (R. 35-46.) The opinion followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by Social Security Regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 26, 2012. (R. 37.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, history of sarcoidosis, sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and left anterior artery bulging. (R. 38.) 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. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) (the "Listings.") (R. 39.)

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a restricted range of light work, in that she could lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She could sit or stand/walk for up to six hours in an eight hour workday, but could only sit for up to thirty minutes continuously and stand and/or walk for up to one hour continuously. She had the following postural and environmental restrictions: she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; she could only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, or crouch; she needed to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, wetness, humidity, and pulmonary irritants, and could never work with hazardous machinery or in high exposed places. (R. 39.) Based on this RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined at step four that Claimant was capable of performing her past relevant work as a customer service representative. (R. 45.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 46.) The Social Security Appeals Council subsequently denied Claimant's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 7.) See Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). Claimant now seeks review in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).


         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, 106-107 (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, 553F.3d 1093, 1097.

         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." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Thus, judicial review is limited to determining whether the ALT applied the correct legal standards and whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings. Nelms v. Astrue, 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).


         Claimant argues, first, that the ALJ erred in not listing her depression as a severe impairment. Second, she contends that the ALJ made several errors in finding that her impairments do not, individually or in combination, meet or medically equal one of the Listings. Third, she argues that the ALJ's assessment of her RFC is not supported by substantial evidence. Fourth, Claimant finds error in the ALJ's evaluation of her credibility.

         As an initial matter, Claimant's brief is notable for a recurrent failure on the part of counsel to support Claimant's arguments with evidence from the record. The defect may arise from counsel's mistaken understanding of the nature of the proceedings before this Court. In Claimant's Reply brief, counsel argues that "the kind of 'proof required in Social Security disability appeals is different from that which is required in bench or jury trials." In support of this position, counsel cites Sims v. Apfel, in which the Supreme Court noted that "Social Security proceedings are inquisitorial rather than adversarial." 530 U.S. 103, 110-11 (2000).

         Counsel is mistaken in his belief that he need not supply the Court with evidence to back his assertions. While it is true that, at the hearing level, a Social Security proceeding is not adversarial, this case has moved beyond the hearing stage. The current proceeding is a civil suit in federal court, and it is adversarial in nature. See Hearing before Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Social Security, Statement of Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, June 28, 2012 ("In contrast to the ALJ hearing, Federal courts employ an adversarial process.") Here, both parties are represented by counsel, and the duty to develop arguments is now theirs. Compare Sims,530 U.S. 103 at 111 (noting that, at the administrative level, the "Commissioner has no representative before the ALJ to oppose the claim for benefits.") Counsel submitted an opening brief marked by scattershot, undeveloped and conclusory arguments, most bearing little reference to ...

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