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Rigsby v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

January 25, 2017

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Krystle Rigsby is before the Court, represented by counsel, seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for benefits on August 17, 2012, alleging disability beginning on October 12, 2011. (Tr. 13.) After holding an evidentiary hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jerry Faust denied the application for benefits in a decision dated May 30, 2014. (Tr. 13-23.) The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1.) Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

         1. The ALJ failed to properly consider his Step Two evaluation.

         2. The ALJ failed to properly consider opinion evidence.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[1] For these purposes, “disabled” means the “inability to engage in 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). “Substantial gainful activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities and that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.

         Social Security regulations set forth a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained this process as follows:

         The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation continues. The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not disabled. The fifth step assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work. If the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008); accord Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-69 (7th Cir. 2011).

         Stated another way, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is serious; (3) whether the impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged to be conclusively disabling; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, given his or her age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009); Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992).

         If the answer at steps one and two is “yes, ” the claimant will automatically be found disabled if he or she suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment at step three, and cannot perform his or her past work (step four), the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform some other job. Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984); see also Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (Under the five-step evaluation, an “affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled…. If a claimant reaches step 5, the burden shifts to the ALJ to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.”).

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to ensure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. It is important to recognize that the scope of review is limited. “The 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). Thus, this Court must determine not whether plaintiff was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, but whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether any errors of law were made. See Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995)). This Court uses the Supreme Court's definition of substantial evidence, i.e., “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         In reviewing for “substantial evidence, ” the entire administrative record is taken into consideration, but this Court does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384, 1390 (7th Cir. 1997). However, while judicial review is deferential, it is not abject; this Court does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. See Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010), and cases cited therein.

         The Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Faust followed the five-step framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. He found that plaintiff had severe impairments of obesity, lumbar disc disease with an annular tear, status-post micro lumbar discectomy, status-post anterior lumbar interbody fusion surgery, and right patellofemoral arthritis. (Tr. 15.)

         The ALJ found plaintiff had the RFC to perform work at the sedentary level with physical limitations. (Tr. 15-17.) Based on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do her past work. (Tr. 21.) However, she was not disabled because she was able to perform other work that existed in significant numbers in the regional and national economies. (Tr. 22-23.)

         The Evidentiary Record

         The court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the record is directed to the points raised by the plaintiff.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born on April 25, 1984, and was twenty-seven years old on her alleged onset date. She was insured for DIB through December 31, 2016.[2] (Tr. 234.) She was five feet six inches tall and weighed two hundred and forty-four pounds. (Tr. 237.) She completed four years of college in August 2009 and did not require special assistance in school. (Tr. 238.)

         Plaintiff previously worked as a busser in Busch Stadium, a waitress at a restaurant, a student assistant nurse, and a registered nurse. (Tr. 239.) Plaintiff claims a herniated disc, depression, anxiety, an annular tear, and pain in her right leg and back limited her ability to work. (Tr. 237.) In March 2014, plaintiff was taking ibuprofen and Percocet for pain; Lorazepam, Zoloft, and Buspar for depression and anxiety; and Baclofen as a muscle relaxer. (Tr. 287.)

         In October 2012 plaintiff completed a function report. (Tr. 248-55.) She stated that her pain began at her lower back and radiated down her right leg. Her ability to work was limited because her right leg occasionally gave out, she was unable to stoop or bend repetitively, and she had constant pain. (Tr. 248.) She had a pet she fed once a day, and her sister helped her take care of the animal. She indicated she could only sleep for two hours at a time with a sleeping pill and she was constantly tired. (Tr. 249.) Plaintiff prepared her own meals but they typically were frozen dinners that she could prepare quickly. She could wash her own clothes but only had motivation to do her laundry about once a month. (Tr. 250.)

         Plaintiff was capable of shopping in a store for her household items about once a week, but she did not drive because she did not own a vehicle. She could handle her own finances. (Tr. 251.) She read and watched television daily but she slept for a significant portion of her day. Plaintiff talked on the phone about once every two weeks, attended ...

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