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Schock v. Colvin

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

September 14, 2016

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


          MARY M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Kathleen M. Schock filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 423 et seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Plaintiff has filed a request to reverse the ALJ's decision and award benefits. Alternatively, she requests that this Court reverse the decision and remand for additional proceedings. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded.


         To recover Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. York v. Massanari, 155 F.Supp.2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001).[1] A person is disabled if he or she is unable to perform “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.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner conducts a standard five-step inquiry:

1. Is the claimant presently unemployed?
2. Does the claimant have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that interferes with basic work-related activities and is expected to last at least 12 months?
3. Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations?
4. Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?
5. Is the claimant unable to perform any other work?

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520; see Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). “An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled.” Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985). “The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB on October 27, 2010, alleging that she became disabled on May 16, 2010, due to fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, herniated discs, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, plantar fasciitis, depression, and allergies. (R. at 19, 100, 246). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 19, 100-01, 105-108, 113-115, 117). On October 31, 2012, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 19, 34-99). The ALJ also heard testimony from Ashok Jilhewar, M.D., a medical expert (ME), and Jeffery W. Lucas, a vocational expert (VE). (Id. at 19, 34-99, 203, 205).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on November 29, 2012. (R. at 19- 28). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 16, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 21). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's obesity, fibromyalgia, diabetes mellitus, status post cervical fusion, obstructive sleep apnea, and degenerative disc disease are severe impairments. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 23).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC)[2] and determined that she can perform sedentary work “except she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. She can perform frequent but not constant handling, fingering, and reaching bilaterally.” (R. at 23). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a manager of a financial institution as that job is generally performed in economy. (Id. at 27). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not suffering from a disability, as defined by the Act. (Id.).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 15, 2014. (R. at 1-5). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the SSA. In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in gen- eral, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. The Court's task is “limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004); see Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014) (“We will uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, that is, such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). “In addition to relying on substantial evidence, the ALJ must also explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barn-hart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it “must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision.” Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). “This deferential standard of review is weighted in favor of upholding the ALJ's decision, but it does not mean that we scour the record for supportive evidence or rack our brains for reasons to uphold the ALJ's decision. Rather, the ALJ must identify the relevant evidence and build a ‘logical bridge' between that evidence and the ultimate determination.” Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 721 (7th Cir. 2014). Where the Commissioner's decision “lacks eviden- tiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).


         A. Treating Sources

         Plaintiff experienced symptoms of fibromyalgia starting in 2004. (R. at 429). In September 2007, Plaintiff began treating with Angela Maier, M.D., at the Edward Medical Group. (Id. at 371). Dr. Maier diagnosed hypertension, GERD, fibromyal-gia, and menopausal syndrome. (Id.). In March 2009, Plaintiff sought treatment for fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, while also reporting dizziness and increased stress. (Id. at 309). On examination, Dr. Maier found musculoskeletal tenderness and rotator cuff tendinitis. (Id.). At a follow-up with Dr. Maier on January 4, 2010, Plaintiff reported persistent back pain. (Id. at 381). Dr. Maier diagnosed fibromyalgia, hypertension, and possible menopausal symptoms. (R. at 382). She prescribed phen-termine[3] and increased a previously prescribed Premarin dosage.[4] (Id.).

         On February 1, 2010, Plaintiff reported continued minor aches and pressure in the back, but noted that Premarin seemed to help. (R. at 379, 380). On May 4, Plaintiff reported that her lower back pain was 6/10. (R. at 373). Dr. Maier pre- scribed Darvocet, and told her to continue to use Alieve and Tylenol for the pain.[5](R. at 373-74). Dr. Maier also began to wean Plaintiff off phentermine, and opined that she should diet and exercise. (R. at 374). On June ...

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