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Massion v. Colvin

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

November 14, 2016

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


          MARY M. ROWLAND, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Thomas Michael Massion filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his 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 motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         To recover Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act.[1] 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 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 protectively applied for DIB on October 13, 2011, alleging that he became disabled on July 14, 2010, because of three degenerated disks in his lower back and de Quervain's tenosynovitis in his right wrist and arm. (R. at 18, 211). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 18, 77-93, 97-102). On July 19, 2013, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a video hearing before William Wenzel, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 18, 40-62). The ALJ also heard testimony from Gilberto Munoz, M.D., a medical expert (ME), and Pamela G. Tucker, a vocational expert (VE). (Id. at 18, 42-48, 62-75, 135, 137).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on March 22, 2014. (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 July 14, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 20). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's history of low back and left leg pain, secondary to possible L3 radiculopathy, are severe impairments. (Id. at 20-21). The ALJ further found Plaintiff's right wrist pain and te-nosynovitis to be a nonsevere impairment. (Id. at 21-22). 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 22-24).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC)[2] and determined that he can perform light work, except that:

[H]e is limited to frequent overhead reaching and no more than occasional handling and fingering with the right hand. [Plaintiff] is also limited to no more than occasional operation of foot controls on the left with occasional ability to crouch or climb. [Plaintiff] should avoid climbing ladders and scaffolds and should avoid work at unprotected heights. With regard to environmental limitations, [Plaintiff] should avoid vibrations and cold.

(R. at 24). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 29). Based upon 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 a call out clerk or an information clerk. (Id. at 29-30). 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 June 25, 2015. (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 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 ‘log- ical bridge' between that evidence and the ultimate determination.” Moon v. Colvin, 763718, 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 July 2010, Plaintiff presented to Antonio Baluga Jr., M.D., at MedChoice Medical Center with complaints of persistent low back pain for the past three to six months. (R. at 287). The pain had recently started radiating into his left lower extremities, with associated numbness and tingling. (Id.). Plaintiff reported his pain worsened with bending, lifting, and prolonged sitting. (Id.). Physical examination demonstrated abnormal lumbar range of motion, a positive left tripod test and a positive left Kemp's test, all with tingling down the left leg.[3] (Id.). Left straight leg raise (SLR) test was positive at 80 degrees, [4] and tenderness was noted over the left sciatic nerve. (Id.). An x-ray of the lumbar spine revealed minimal degenerative disc height narrowing at ¶ 4-L5 and minimal anterior endplate osteophyte superiorly at ¶ 4. (Id. at 291). Dr. Baluga diagnosed Plaintiff with degenerative disc disease, [5] and Plaintiff was referred to physical therapy for further evaluation and treatment. (Id. at 287, 291-92).

         An MRI of the lumbar spine was performed on August 11, 2010, which revealed mild disc bulges without disc herniation at ¶ 1-L2 and L2-L3. (R. at 411). At ¶ 3-L4, there was a moderate diffuse disc bulge associated with bilateral broad-based protrusions. (Id.). The central canal was exposed, but there was “marginal displacement of the right L3 nerve root sleeve” and “an annular tear resulting in mild displacement of the left L3 nerve root ...

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