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Hernandez v. Colvin

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

October 11, 2016

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


          Mary M. Rowland Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.


         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 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).

         The ALJ 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).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC)[2] 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).

         The 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).


         Judicial 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).

         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).


         On 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).

         Plaintiff 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, [3] ordered an MRI, [4] 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)

         On 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. ( 311, 319). On December 5, Dr. Box referred Plaintiff to an orthopedic specialist for a follow-up and for physical therapy. (Id. at 312).

         In an 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).

         On May 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 ...

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