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Cheatham v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 10, 2017

SANDRA K. CHEATHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Sandra K. Cheatham, represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Ms. Cheatham applied for benefits in August 2012 alleging disability beginning on September 1, 2010. (Tr. 17.) After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Joseph L. Heimann denied the application for benefits in a decision dated August 15, 2014. (Tr. 17-26.) 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 consider evidence of plaintiff's mental impairments, erroneously failed to find that she had a serious mental impairment, and failed to account for her mental limitations in his assessment of her residual functional capacity.
2. The ALJ erred in determining that plaintiff could return to her past work because he failed to correctly analyze her past work as a composite job.
3. The ALJ's findings with regard to adjustment to other work and transferable skills was erroneous and based on vocational expert testimony that conflicted with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and lacked a reliable basis.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. 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.

         In a DIB case, a claimant must establish that she was disabled as of her date last insured. Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997). It is not sufficient to simply show that the impairment was present as of the date last insured; rather plaintiff must show that the impairment was severe enough to be disabling as of the relevant date. Martinez v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir. 2011).

         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 Ms. Cheatham 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 Court takes into consideration the entire administrative record 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 Heimann followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that Ms. Cheatham had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that she was insured for DIB through December 31, 2013. He found that plaintiff had severe impairments of hip osteoarthritis with osteopenia, left knee osteoarthritis, lumbar osteoporosis, status post mitral valve replacement, hypertension, and asthma. He further determined that these impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Cheatham had the RFC to perform work at the sedentary exertional level with a number of physical limitations. He did not assign any mental limitations. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was able to do her past work as a recruiter as that job is generally performed and as it was performed by her. He made an alternative finding that she was also able to do other work and had transferable skills to jobs such as telemarketer and appointment clerk.

         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 plaintiff and is confined to the relevant time period.

         1.Agency ...


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