United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
M. Rowland Magistrate Judge.
Luisa Maria Hernandez 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), and Plaintiff has filed
a request to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for
additional proceedings. For the reasons stated below, the
Commissioner's decision is affirmed.
THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
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). 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
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
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
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
applied for DIB on February 25, 2012, alleging that she
became disabled on March 28, 2008, due to of a tear of her
meniscus, high blood pressure, torn ligaments, and sleep
apnea. (R. at 18, 211, 215). The application was denied
initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed
a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 18, 81-112,
115). On August 16, 2013, Plaintiff, represented by counsel,
testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ). (Id. at 18, 36-80). The ALJ also heard
testimony from Lee O. Knutson, a vocational expert (VE).
(Id. at 18, 70-80, 164). The Plaintiff, through her
attorney, amended her alleged onset date to February 16,
2010. (Id. at 18, 253).
denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on September 23,
2013. (R. at 18- 30). Applying the five-step sequential
evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that
Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since the alleged onset date. (Id. at 20). At step
two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's obesity and arthritis
are severe impairments, but her hypertension and sleep apnea
are not. (Id. at 20-21). 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 21-22).
then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(RFC) and determined that she can
lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds
frequently and can be on her feet standing/walking about 6
hours in an 8-hour workday with normal rest periods and sit
about 6 hours, with normal rest periods. She is unable to
work at heights or frequently climb ladders. She may
occasionally kneel or crawl. She should avoid operation of
moving or dangerous machinery or foot controls.
(R. at 22). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's
testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff is
able to perform past relevant work as a laundry
aide/housekeeper. (Id. at 28). Based on
Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and the VE's
testimony, the ALJ also determined at step five that there
are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that Plaintiff can perform, including assembler,
packer/garment folder, and mail room clerk/sorter.
(Id. at 28-30). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability, as defined by
the Act. (Id. at 30).
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on
May 7, 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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized
by § 405(g) of the 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 § 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).
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.
RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE
March 28, 2008, while working as a laundry technician in a
nursing home, Plaintiff stepped on a ball and fell forward
onto a table and then onto the floor with her leg bent in
front of her. (R. at 47, 49, 51, 266). Plaintiff continued to
work for the nursing home until she was terminated in
February 2010 for unsatisfactory performance. (Id.
at 53). During this time, the leg remained swollen,
especially when she stood or sat for extended periods.
(Id. at 266).
began treating with Helen Box, M.D., and other doctors at
Erie Hum-boldt Park Health Center, in 2007. (R. at 257-317,
402). On April 20, 2010, Plaintiff reported that she had not
been able to walk for the past two years due to her knee
injury and complained of pain in her knee and lower leg.
(Id. at 266). On examination, Dr. Box found her
right knee swollen with some effusion, and despite full range
of motion, there was pain over the medial joint line.
(Id. at 267). She assessed chronic right knee pain
and deteriorating obesity and referred Plaintiff for X-rays,
physical therapy, and to an orthopedic specialist.
(Id. at 268). On June 15, Plaintiff reported that
she has been unable to do any exercises for her knee; she has
pulling pain in the medial side of the knee which becomes
worse when contracting her quad muscles. (Id. at
278). Dr. Box encouraged Plaintiff to do quad strengthening
exercises. (Id. at 279). On October 25, Plaintiff
complained of continuing right knee pain, which was not
alleviated by Tylenol or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory
drug (NSAID) lotion. (Id. at 281). She has a knee
brace but is not using it because it makes her leg feel
tired. (Id.). On examination, Dr. Box found that
Plaintiff's right knee was visibly swollen and warm with
palpable effusion. (Id. at 282). Dr. Box assessed
chronic right knee pain, injected the knee with
triamcinolone,  ordered an MRI,  and encouraged Plaintiff to
increase the number of leg lifts she was doing at home and to
start using a cane. (Id.). On January 25, 2011,
Plaintiff reported that her knee pain improved after the
injection but worsened again in December. (Id. at
284). Dr. Box referred her for an orthopedic consult at
Northwestern Medical. (Id. at 285)
April 5, 2011, Plaintiff reported that while her knee brace
helps, she still has trouble with stairs because of swelling
in her knee. (R. at 288). At Plaintiff's request, Dr. Box
gave her another knee injection and again recommended an
orthopedics consultation. (Id. at 288, 290). On June
29, Plaintiff reported knee pain that is partially alleviated
with ibuprofen. (Id. at 295). She is able to walk
only three blocks before needing an extended rest into the
next day. (Id.). In November 2011, a right knee
arthroscopy repaired a torn meniscus. (Id.at 311,
319). On December 5, Dr. Box referred Plaintiff to an
orthopedic specialist for a follow-up and for physical
therapy. (Id. at 312).
adult function report dated April 23, 2012, Plaintiff
reported that she cannot stand for a long period, kneel,
squat, or walk too much because of the swelling in her knee.
(R. at 229). Her ailments affect her ability to lift, squat,
bend, stand, walk, kneel, climb stairs, and complete tasks.
(Id. at 234).
9, 2012, Plaintiff reported that the orthopedic specialist
had diagnosed her with arthritis and numbness of her right
knee. (R. at 323). She is able to do some knee exercises and
a little walking. (Id.). On examination, Dr. Box
observed that Plaintiff's right knee was wider than the
left, and noted that there was a ...