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Lauster v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 8, 2017

TODD LAUSTER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Todd Lauster, represented by counsel, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability benefits in April 2007, alleging disability beginning on September 15, 2006. (Tr. 718.) His application was denied by an ALJ in April 2010 (Tr. 715-726.) Mr. Lauster then filed a new claim for disability benefits in June 2010, which was granted by the state agency at the reconsideration level. However, on August 15, 2011, the Appeals Council vacated both the denial from April 2010 and the favorable decision on the subsequent application because they were inconsistent. The applications were consolidated and remanded for further proceedings. (Tr. 727-735.) A second ALJ denied the application in July 2013 (Tr. 1310-1328.), and the Appeals Council again vacated the decision (Tr. 1329-1331.)

         The claim was then assigned to ALJ Stuart T. Janney. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Janney denied the application in a decision dated July 9, 2014.[2] (Tr. 19-38.) This time, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the July 9, 2014, decision became the final agency decision subject to judicial review. (Tr. 9.)

         Plaintiff has exhausted his administrative remedies and has filed a timely complaint in this court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

         1. The ALJ failed to explain the weight he assigned to the medical opinions and violated the Appeals Council directive to properly consider the opinion of state agency medical consultant M.W. DiFonso.

         2. The ALJ's assessment of plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) failed to accommodate his impairments in combination and failed to account for his moderate limitations in social functioning and in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace.

         3. The credibility determination was erroneous.

         4. The ALJ failed to resolve inconsistencies between the testimony of the vocational expert and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[3] 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) & 1382c(a)(3)(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) & 1382c(a)(3)(C). “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 Secretary 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 understand that the scope of judicial 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 Mr. Lauster was, in fact, disabled, 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 Court takes into consideration the entire administrative record but 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 Janney followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that Mr. Lauster had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. He was insured for DIB only through December 31, 2009.[4]

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of cervical spine degenerative disc disease; lumbar spine degenerative disc disease with a spontaneously resolved annular tear; left shoulder impingement and acromioclavicular separation status post-surgical repair; right lateral epicondylitis, olecranon bursitis and internal derangement treated with arthroscopic surgery; moderate left ulnar neuropathy; late onset dysthymic disorder; major depressive disorder, recurrent; depression; adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; generalized anxiety disorder; social phobia; chronic pain syndrome; personality disorder, not otherwise specified; and history of alcohol abuse. He found that these impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         ALJ Janney concluded that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform work at the light exertional level, limited to occasional climbing of ropes, ladders and scaffolding; frequent climbing of ramps and stairs; frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no overhead reaching with bilateral upper extremities, but occasional reaching in all other directions; and frequent bilateral handling, fingering and feeling. He also had mental limitations consisting of only rote or routine instructions that require the exercise of little independent judgment or decision-making for the two-hour segments that make up an eight-hour workday at a consistent pace, but not if the tasks are complex or detailed; a task-oriented or object-oriented setting as opposed to a service-oriented setting; frequent interaction with co-workers and supervisors; and only occasional interaction with the public.

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that plaintiff could not do his past work, but he could perform other jobs which exist in significant numbers in the ...

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