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Brown v. Colvin

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

October 11, 2016

LINDA G. BROWN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Linda G. Brown filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) 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), and have filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is granted and the ALJ's decision is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         To recover Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), [1] a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. York v. Massanari, 155 F.Supp.2d 973, 976-77 (N.D. Ill. 2001). 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, stops inquiry and leads to a determination that the 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 May 24, 2011, alleging that she became disabled on October 20, 2005. (R. at 119, 244-50). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 114-15, 119). On March 19, 2013, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 13-99, 119). Plaintiff's sister, Denise Lear, and Brian L. Harmon, a vocational expert (VE), also appeared and testified. (Id.).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on May 28, 2013. (R. at 119-27). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of October 20, 2005, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2010, her date last insured. (Id. at 121). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and anxiety. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ first 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 121-22). The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC)[2] and determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work, except “no ladders, ropes or scaffolds, no more than frequent handling, reaching, fingering and only simple, routine, repetitive tasks.” (Id. at 122). At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an assembler as it was generally performed at the unskilled/light exertional level. (Id. at 126). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined by the Act, at any time from October 20, 2005, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2010, the date last insured. (Id. at 127).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 29, 2014. (R. at 1-6). 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 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act. 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 general, 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 42 U.S.C. § 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. Barnhart, 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). The Court must critically review the ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ has built an “accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Young, 362 F.3d at 1002. Where the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary 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).


         Since 2002, Plaintiff has been a patient at Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center (Lake County), and was treated by Oana Nisipeanu, M.D. (R. at 565). On October 25, 2004, Plaintiff underwent a Pap smear at Lake County. (Id. at 472). It was noted that she had acid reflux and stomach ache, especially after eating greasy food. (Id.). It was also noted that she had a rash under both breasts and between her legs, and that she may have arthritis. (Id.). On December 6, 2004, Plaintiff followed up for a blood pressure check. (Id.). She complained about losing weight and fatigue. (Id.). She also complained of index finger pain and swelling. (Id.). She was prescribed hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) for her blood pressure.[3] (Id.) On December 13, 2004, Plaintiff followed up for her lab results. (Id. at 471). She commented that she hoped the doctor would prescribe her something for her arthritis and that she was under a lot of stress lately. (Id.). On a July 18, ...

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