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Simon-Leveque v. Colvin

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

January 17, 2017

DENISE SIMON-LEVEQUE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MARY M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Denise Simon-Leveque 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 case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         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.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on August 5, 2013, alleging that she became disabled on November 2, 2011, because of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, neuropathy, heart attack, carpal tunnel syndrome, and depression. (R. at 14, 216-22, 240, 251). The application was denied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 14, 83-107, 122-23). On June 8, 2015, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 14, 30-82). The ALJ also heard testimony from Amanda Ortman, a vocational expert (VE). (Id. at 14, 76-81).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on June 25, 2015. (R. at 14-25). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 2, 2011, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 16). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease, obesity, peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and degenerative disc disease are severe impairments. (Id.). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's depression is a nonsevere impairment. (Id. at 16-18). 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 18).

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

she cannot kneel, crawl, or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally crouch, stoop, balance, and climb ramps and stairs. She can perform frequent handling, fingering, and feeling, bilaterally. She should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration, pulmonary irritants (fumes, odors, dusts, and gases), and poorly ventilated areas. Her work must be performed with less than frequent need to discriminate small objects at a distance.

         (R. at 18). At step four, based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that she can perform her past relevant work as a brokerage clerk. (Id. at 24-25). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability, as defined by the Act. (Id. at 25).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 21, 2014. (R. at 1-6). 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).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 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).

         IV. RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE

         Plaintiff was a brokerage assistant at Morgan Stanley from 1983 until March 2012, when she was laid off upon returning from a medical leave of absence. (R. at 39).

         On March 15, 2013, Catherine J. Yi, M.D., noted that Plaintiff needs close follow-up and monitoring because she is “very noncompliant” with medications and doctor visits. (R. at 520). On March 17, Plaintiff reported ongoing sleep issues, with resulting depression and fatigue. (Id. at 452). Dr. Yi prescribed Cymbalta.[3] (Id.). On March 21, Plaintiff reported not starting her Cymbalta. (Id.). Dr. Yi found that Plaintiff has difficulty motivating herself due to her depression. (Id.). On May 3, Plaintiff still had not started her antidepressant and had not followed-up on the psych referral. (Id. at 520). Dr. Yi concluded that Plaintiff's depression has contributed to her noncompliance with her medication regimen and her failure to follow-up on her medical conditions. (Id.). On July 26, Dr. Yi again prescribed Cymbalta, with the possibility of increasing dosage if needed. (Id. at 764). On August 30, Plaintiff presented with signs of depression. (Id.). She acknowledged not having started her Cymbalta prescription. (Id.). On October 23 and November 19, Plaintiff reported that she had started Cymbalta without side ...


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