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Daniels v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

September 13, 2016

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

          ORDER AND OPINION [1]


         Now before the Court is the Plaintiff's, Claimant Christine Bernice Daniels, Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 15) and Commissioner of Social Security's, Carolyn W. Colvin, Motion for Summary Affirmance (Doc. 18). Plaintiff appeals from the denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Motions are fully briefed, and for the reasons stated herein, the Court denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and grants the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance.


         On July 11, 2012, Daniels filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (AR 193). In her application, Daniels alleged disability beginning on July 9, 2012. (AR 194). The claim was denied initially on October 25, 2012 (AR 102), and upon reconsideration on February 20, 2013 (AR 110). On March 20, 2013, Daniels filed a timely request for hearing concerning her application for disability insurance benefits. (AR 15). An initial hearing was held before the Honorable Robert H. Schwartz, administrative law judge (ALJ), on October 1, 2013 via video, during which time Daniels was represented by Cherie Pichone, non-attorney representative. (AR 38). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Daniels was not disabled from July 9, 2012 through the date of the decision. (AR 32). Daniels' request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on February 18, 2015 (AR 1), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Daniels filed the instant civil action seeking review of the ALJ's decision on April 15, 2015. (Doc. 1).


         At the time she applied for benefits, Christine Daniels was a nearly 46 year old divorced woman living in East Moline, Illinois. (AR 193). Under the Medical Vocational Rules, which provide guidelines for finding a claimant disabled, the Claimant was considered a “younger person” prior to her 50th birthday, whereupon she would be categorized as “closely approaching advanced age”. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(b). Daniels has a 12th grade education with specialized training in automotive management, communications, sales, inventory control, customer service, and OSHA. At some point she was certified as an auto parts professional. (AR 45). On her Form SSA-3368, Daniels provided that she had previously worked as a parts department worker, key counter worker, and an installer service specialist. (AR 195). At the hearing before the ALJ, she testified that she had to leave work several times and go to the emergency room due to back pain. (AR 45). Daniels testified that at her last job, she was moved to a new location and could not bring her stool with her, and the standing caused more back pain. (AR 45). She also told her treating physician that her work-related stress resulted from conflicts with her boss and quit her job due to her back pain, even though her boss offered her shorter shifts in order to accommodate her. (AR 24). She also testified that she couldn't find a job because of her lack of computer skills. (AR 46).

         Daniels was prescribed medication for several conditions, including insomnia, chronic back pain, pain, depression, allergies related to working with auto parts, and anxiety. (AR 197). She testified that her sleep is severely affected by her condition, and her medication causes her tiredness. (AR 57). According to Daniels, she still has depression and PTSD. (AR 57. 63). Daniels also stated she can no longer stand, bend, stoop, or lift for a short amount of time. (AR 24, 59). She has trouble putting her pants on. (AR 62).

         Further, Daniels testified that she had surgery on her left elbow and wrist, and still feels pain in her elbow as well as a reduced range of motion (AR 46), although the ALJ noted that she demonstrated a full range of motion and strength during her consultative medical exams, and she has had no further treatment on her elbow or wrist since her surgery. (AR 16). Daniels lived by herself, and prepares her own meals. (AR 43, 206). She says that it is painful to get in and out of the car and to sit for long periods of time. (AR 43). Although she is capable of completing some household chores for about three or four hours a day, Daniels said that it is too painful for her to do more strenuous chores, such as gardening and vacuuming. (AR 61-62). She cared for her infant granddaughter in the evenings after work from July 2012 until July 2013. (AR 27). She sometimes swims to relieve the pressure on her joints. On her function report, she noted that she does her own shopping and is able to pay her bills. (AR 207).

         At the hearing, after listening to Daniels' testimony, the ALJ posed his hypothetical questions to the vocational expert (VE), Brian Paprocki. First, the ALJ asked the VE to consider an individual the Claimant's age, education, and work experience, assuming the individual is limited to performing light work, assuming the individual has a combination of impairments including pain, side effects from medication, and a mental impairment that the individual is reasonably limited to performing simply, routine, or repetitive tasks on a sustained basis. Additionally, the hypothetical assumed that the work must not require more than usual routine changes in work settings or duties. (AR 68). The VE testified that under this hypothetical, Daniels' could not perform her past work. The VE responded that, given the aforementioned limitations, the following were representative jobs that could be performed by such a person: a routing clerk or a collator operator. (AR 68).

         The ALJ's second hypothetical assumed the same restrictions but assumed the additional limitations: the individual should avoid more than occasional postural activities, no more than occasional climbing, balancing, kneeling, stooping, crouching, or crawling; the individual should have the opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing to relieve pain; and the individual has a history of allergies and asthma, and the individual should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, and gases. The VE responded with the following jobs: a page in a library or electrical assembler. (AR 69). The ALJ then asked whether there were any sedentary jobs that the VE could identify under the hypotheticals, to which the VE responded with the following: envelope addresser, lampshade assembler, or foundation maker. The VE added that these jobs allow for sitting or standing at will throughout the day. (AR 70).

         In his written Decision, issued three months before the Claimant's 50th birthday, the ALJ applied the standard five-step sequential evaluation process and ultimately found that Daniels was not disabled from July 9, 2012, through March 17, 2014, the date of the Decision. The ALJ determined that Daniels satisfied Step One because she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period since her alleged onset date of July 9, 2012. (AR 15). At Step Two, the ALJ found that Daniels suffered from the following severe impairments: chronic pain syndrome with mild degenerative changes to the lumbar spine, rule out somatoform disorder, hypertension, a history of asthma, an affective disorder, an anxiety disorder, and rule out substance abuse. (AR 15).

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that the medical evidence did not establish that Daniels' impairments met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments, either individually or in combination. (AR 17). Specifically, the ALJ did not find that Daniels met Listing 1.02 (Major dysfunction of a joint(s)), 1.04 (Disorders of the spine), or 3.03 (Asthma). Further, the ALJ specified that Daniels did not meet the mental listings for 12.04 (Affective disorder), or 12.06 (Anxiety-related disorders). (AR 18). Similarly, the ALJ found that the claimant has no restrictions in activities of daily living. (AR 18). Importantly, the ALJ did note that Daniels has moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace. (AR 19).

         The ALJ found that the claimant has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work, subject to the following limitations: she can climb, balance, stoop, crouch, and/or crawl no more than occasionally; must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation; and restricted to simple, routine, repetitive tasks on a sustained basis with no more than ordinary and routine changes in work setting or duties. (AR 20). The ALJ specifically referenced Daniels' own testimony, particular medical records pertaining to her impairments, records from Daniels' treating doctors, consultative examinations, State agency medical consultants, and the Vocation Expert's testimony in reaching his decision. The ALJ also noted that although Daniels claims she has physical complaints of pain, he saw minimal objective evidence, and her pain management specialist wrote that her spine revealed age appropriate changes. (AR 21).

         Regarding Daniels' mental impairments, the ALJ discussed the Claimant's limitations regarding reduced concentration, difficulty coping with changes in the work place, and subjective difficulty with memory. (AR 29). He added that her psychological pain perception appeared largely affected by the combination of her mental impairments, noting that he was giving her significant benefit of the doubt despite the lack of objective or physical evidence on record. (AR 28). The ALJ determined that his RFC limitation of the performance of simple, routine, and repetitive tasks would accommodate her mental limitations. (AR 29).

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Daniels is unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 30). The ALJ did not make any determinations of Daniels' transferability of job skills because the Medical-Vocational Rules supports a finding of not disabled whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills. (AR 31).

         At Step Five, the ALJ determined that Daniels could perform a significant number of jobs that existed in the national economy. (AR 31).


         Daniels argues the following: 1) that the ALJ erred by mechanically applying the age category to Plaintiff when she was on the borderline of the age category, and 2) the ALJ erred when he failed to properly consider Plaintiff's mental limitations in his residual functional capacity (RFC) determination and in the hypothetical to the vocational expert (VE). (Doc. 16). The Court will address each argument in turn.


         The Court's function on review is not to try the case de novo or to supplant the ALJ's findings with the Court's own assessment of the evidence. See Schmidt v. Apfel,201 F.3d 970, 972 (7th Cir. 2000); Pugh v. Bowen,870 F.2d 1271 (7th Cir. 1989). Indeed, "[t]he 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). Although great deference is afforded to the determination made by the ALJ, the Court does not "merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). The Court's function is to determine whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. Delgado v. Bowen,782 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is ...

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