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Brunkow v. Colvin

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

January 30, 2017

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

          OPINION & ORDER

          JOE BILLY McDADE United States Senior District Judge

         This social security disability benefits appeal is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 12) filed by the Plaintiff, Lynne Anne Brunkow, and the Motion for Summary Affirmance (Doc. 16) filed by the Defendant, Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. The motions have been fully briefed and are ready for ruling. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ"), Shreese M. Wilson, is AFFIRMED.


         On March 8, 2013, Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") claiming that she had been disabled as of March 4, 2013. (R. 162). Her initial claim was denied on May 1, 2013. (R. 94). The claim was again denied upon reconsideration on October 15, 2013. (R. 105). Plaintiff requested a hearing that was held before an ALJ on February 5, 2015. (R. 33-85, 114-15). Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and a Vocational Expert ("VE") testified. (R. 33-85). The ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim on February 17, 2015. (R. 28). The Appeals Council refused to reconsider Plaintiffs claim on June 23, 2015 (R. 1-4), thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff then appealed to this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         I. Disability Standard

         To be entitled to disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove he is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Commissioner must make factual determinations in assessing the claimant's ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1). The Commissioner applies a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether the claimant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Maggard v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 376, 378 (7th Cir. 1999). The claimant has the burden to prove disability through step four of the analysis, i.e., he must demonstrate an impairment that is of sufficient severity to preclude him from pursuing his past work. McNeil v. Califano, 614 F.2d 142, 145 (7th Cir. 1980).

         In the first step, a threshold determination is made as to whether the claimant is presently involved in a substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not under such employment, the Commissioner of Social Security proceeds to the next step. Id. At the second step, the Commissioner evaluates the severity and duration of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has an impairment that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, the Commissioner will proceed to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant's impairments, considered in combination, are not severe, he is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At the third step, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairments to a list of impairments considered severe enough to preclude any gainful work; if the elements of one of the Listings are met or equaled, the claimant is eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         If the claimant does not qualify under one of the listed impairments, the Commissioner proceeds to the fourth and fifth steps, after making a finding as to the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At the fourth step, the claimant's RFC is evaluated to determine whether he can pursue his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If he cannot, then, at step five, the Commissioner evaluates the claimant's ability to perform other work available in the economy, again using his RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         II. Standard of Review

         When a claimant seeks judicial review of an ALJ's decision to deny benefits, the Court must "determine whether it was supported by substantial evidence or is the result of an error of law." Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 369 (7th Cir. 2004). The Court's review is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides, in relevant part: "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Substantial evidence is "'such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Maggard, 167 F.3d at 379 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

         In a substantial evidence determination, the Court will review the entire administrative record, but it will "not re weigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). In particular, credibility determinations by the ALJ are not upset "so long as they find some support in the record and are not patently wrong." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 335 (7th Cir. 1994). The Court must ensure that the ALJ "build[s] an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, " but he need not address every piece of evidence. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. Where the 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).


         Plaintiff was fifty-three years old at the time of the onset of her alleged disability. She was a surgical technician who herself required surgery to remove a cyst from her brain. (R. at 38, 49). After the surgery, Plaintiff began experiencing problems with her short-term memory. (R. at 38, 50-51, 74-75). Additionally, since the surgery, she has experienced daily headaches. (R. at 49). The claimant is also a former smoker who has been prescribed an inhaler for her breathing issues. (R. at 41, 61). The claimant has also been prescribed medication for depression. (R. at 58).

         Plaintiff has a high school diploma (R. 39, 42) and completed two years of college. (R. 195). After her surgery, the claimant returned to work at Methodist Medical Center, where she was employed as a surgical technician for nearly twenty years. (R. 47-48). She was later fired from her job after receiving "three strikes." (R. 48).

         According to the ALJ, the Plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1." (R. 21). She explained, that "[t]he severity of the claimant's mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, [did] not meet or medically equal the criteria of listings 12.02, 12.04 or 12.06." (R. 21). The ALJ further explained, "[i]n activities of daily living, the claimant has mild restriction. The claimant alleges no difficulty dressing, bathing, grooming, shaving, eating, or using the toilet." (R. 21). She further commented, that in "social functioning, the claimant has mild difficulties." (R. 21). Additionally, the ALJ remarked, "[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence or pace, the claimant has moderate difficulties." (R. 21).

         Because the claimant was not considered "disabled" at the third step, the analysis continued to the fourth step. "The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity ('RFC') and ability to engage in past relevant work." Craft, 539 F.3d at 674. In the instant case, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff could not continue her past work because of her impairments. (R. 79). Therefore, the analysis continued to the fifth step.

         The ALJ found that the claimant is not disabled according to the fifth step because the VE, Mary Andrews, testified that the claimant can still perform various jobs available in the national economy despite her impairments; kitchen ...

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