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Moynihan v. Colvin

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

November 7, 2016

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


          Mary M. Rowland, Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Mary Ann Moynihan filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Social Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI 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 SSI, 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 SSI on August 31, 2011, alleging that she became disabled on September 2, 2008, because of arthritis of the hip and back, depression, and anxiety. (R. at 25). The application was denied initially on January 5, 2012 and again on reconsideration. (Id. at 74-76). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 79-81). On May 30, 2013, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 38). The ALJ also heard testimony from Jennifer Carril, a vocational expert (VE). (Id.).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on September 27, 2013. (R. at 17). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 31, 2011. (Id. at 22). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's arthritis of hip and back, depression, and anxiety 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 light work; specifically:

[t]he claimant can occasionally lift and carry twenty pounds; can frequently lift and carry ten pounds; can be on her feet standing and walking for at least six hours in an eight hour workday, with normal rest periods; can sit for at least six hours in an eight hour workday, with normal rest periods; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can understand, remember, and car-ryout simple work instructions and execute simple workspace judgments; can perform routine work that involves occasional changes and decision making and can only occasionally interact with the general public.

(R. at 24). The ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 29). Based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step five that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including housekeeper, hand presser, and bench assembler. (Id. at 30). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability, as defined by the Act. (Id. at 31).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 4, 2014. (R. at 1-3). 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 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 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).


         In February 2001, Plaintiff stopped working due to a back injury. (R. at 144). Prior to that time, she had been working as a cashier in retail stores, a fast food worker at a hot dog stand, and a teller at the currency exchange. (Id. at 145).

         On August 4, 2011, Plaintiff began treating with George Michaels, M.D., at the Access Community Health Network (ACHN) in Chicago, Illinois. (R. at 222). She complained of persistent back pain. (Id. at 230). On examination, Dr. Michaels noted myalgias and back pain but no joint swelling or gait abnormalities. (Id.). Plaintiff had mild tenderness on the left paravertebral muscle at the lumbar level, but her cervical and musculoskeletal range of motion were normal and she could perform a straight leg raise test above 80° bilaterally.[3] (Id. at 231). Dr. Michaels assessed back pain and prescribed Flexeril.[4]

         On October 14, 2011, Plaintiff was treated at Mount Sinai Medical Center Emergency Department complaining of back and hip pain that had been getting worse over the prior month. (R. at 248). An examination noted back pain and inflammation but full range of motion, a normal gait, and intact sensation. (Id. at 252-53). No mental health issues were complained of or present. (Id. at 248, 253). Charles Barron, M.D., ordered X-rays of the pelvis, right hip, and lumbosacral spine. (Id. at 246-48). X-rays of the pelvis and hip revealed mild bilateral hip osteo-arthritis with mild superior joint space narrowing and small osteophytes bilaterally along with numerous calcified phleboliths.[5] (Id. at 246). The lumbar spine X-ray revealed minimal levocurvature of the lumbar spine ...

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