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Montalta v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Peoria Division

October 28, 2016


          ORDER AND OPINION [1]


         The Plaintiff, Deborah Montalta, filed an application for Social Security Disability benefits (“SSD”) on April 2, 2013, alleging disability since March 31, 2005. (Tr. 66, 149-1552)[2]. Her application was denied (Tr. 78-81, 94-96) and Montalta requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 12, 2013. (Tr. 100-101). In a letter dated August 25, 2014, Ms. Montalta amended her onset of disability to November 1, 2006. (Tr. 173). A hearing was held before ALJ Karen Sayon on October 6, 2014. (Tr. 32-60). By decision dated December 5, 2014, ALJ Sayon found Ms. Montalta not disabled. (Tr. 15-31). The Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. However, the Appeals Council denied the request for review on March 13, 2015. (Tr. 1-7). This was the final act of the Defendant, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). The Plaintiff argues in this Court that the ALJ erred when finding that her alleged cervical spine impairment was non-severe at step two of the sequential process, described below. The Court disagrees and, accordingly, as set forth, infra, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (D. 9) is DENIED and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (D. 14) is GRANTED.



         The Court's function on review of a denial of social security benefits 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 defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the decision. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Henderson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 507, 512 (7th Cir. 1999).

         In order to qualify for disability insurance benefits, an individual must show that her inability to work is medical in nature and that she is totally disabled. Economic conditions, personal factors, financial considerations, and attitudes of the employer are irrelevant in determining whether a plaintiff is eligible for disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966 (1986). The establishment of disability under the Act is a two-step process.

         First, the plaintiff must be suffering from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments, 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. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Second, there must be a factual determination that the impairment renders the plaintiff unable to engage in any substantial gainful employment. McNeil v. Califano, 614 F.2d 142, 143 (7th Cir. 1980). The factual determination is made by using a five- step test. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the following order, the ALJ must evaluate whether the claimant:

1) currently performs or, during the relevant time period, did perform any substantial gainful activity;
2) suffers from an impairment that is severe or whether a combination of her impairments is severe;
3) suffers from an impairment which meets or equals any impairment listed in the appendix and which meets the duration requirement;
4) is unable to perform her past relevant work which includes an assessment of the claimant's residual functional capacity; and
5) is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

Id. An affirmative answer at any step leads either to the next step of the test, or at steps three and five, to a finding that the plaintiff is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than at step three, stops the inquiry and leads to a determination that the plaintiff is not disabled. Garfield v. Schweiker, 732 F.2d 605 (7th Cir. 1984).

         The plaintiff has the burdens of production and persuasion on steps one through four. However, once the plaintiff shows an inability to perform past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show ability to engage in some other type of substantial gainful employment. Tom v. Heckler, ...

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