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Pantano v. Berryhill

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

February 9, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.


          HON. MARIA VALDEZ United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Daniel Pantano (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Administration”) denying his Social Security disability insurance (“SSDI”) application, under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff has filed a memorandum in support of his motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 10] and the Commissioner has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 17]. After reviewing the record, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.


         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an SSDI application on July 11, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2012 due to a spinal injury, later amending his application to allege a disability onset date of February 1, 2011. (R. 151-54.) His initial application was denied on October 10, 2012, and again at the reconsideration stage on January 24, 2013. (R. 75, 83.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 31, 2013, and the hearing was scheduled on October 16, 2013. (R. 23-67, 98-99.) Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with his attorney and offered testimony along with his wife. (R. 29-67.) A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared and testified. (Id.) On November 8, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiffs application for SSDI. (R. 9-19.) The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied review on February 25, 2015, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and therefore reviewable by the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005); Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 332 (7th Cir. 1994).

         II. ALJ Decision

         On November 8, 2013, the ALJ issued a written determination denying Plaintiffs DIB application. (R. 19-34.) As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2016. (R. 14.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity (“SGA”) since his alleged onset date of February 1, 2011. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of: degenerative disc disease - status post fusion and instrumentation, and obesity. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments (“Listing[s]”) contained in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. (Id.) Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work. (R. 15.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's RFC was further limited to: no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional stooping; and frequent balancing, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. (Id.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a mailroom clerk. (R. 32.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act, and denied Plaintiff's application for SSDI. (R. 18-19.)


         I. ALJ Legal Standard

         Under the Act, a person is disabled if she has an “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ considers the following five questions in order: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Does the claimant have a severe impairment? (3) Does the impairment meet or medically equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation? and (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).

         An affirmative answer at either step 3 or step 5 leads to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992). A negative answer at any step, other than at step 3, precludes a finding of disability. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps 1-4. Id. Once the claimant shows an inability to perform past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant's ability to engage in other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.

         II. Judicial Review

         Section 405(g) provides in relevant part that “[t]he 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). Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence or based upon legal error. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). This Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Skinner, 478 F.3d at 841; see also Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008) (holding that the ALJ's decision must be affirmed even if “'reasonable minds could differ'” as long as “the decision is adequately supported”) (citation omitted).

         The ALJ is not required to address “every piece of evidence or testimony in the record, [but] the ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind her decision to deny benefits.” Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001). In cases where the ALJ denies benefits to a claimant, “he must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. The ALJ must at least minimally articulate the “analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005); Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 634 (7th Cir. 2007) (“An ALJ has a duty to fully ...

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