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Stewartt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 27, 2017

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Charles T. Stewart seeks judicial review of the final agency decision terminating his Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Mr. Stewart applied for both DIB and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits in December 1992. In 1993, the agency granted his application for DIB, finding that he had been disabled since April 13, 1992. (Tr. 17, 137.)

         Mr. Stewart's claim was reviewed in 1996, and he again was found disabled in June of that year. (Tr. 17.) Another continuing disability review was conducted in 2000, and, this time, the agency determined that he was no longer disabled. (Tr. 137-39, 193.) However, the agency erroneously continued to pay his monthly DIB payments through September 2004. (Tr. 17.) According to the agency, plaintiff was overpaid by $44, 801.00. (Tr. 132.)

         On November 3, 2004, Mr. Stewart filed a request for reconsideration, alleging that he had not received the letters informing him of the May 2000 cessation determination. His request for reconsideration was granted, and further proceedings were held. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Helen Cropper issued a written decision in July 2008 finding that his disability had ended as of May 1, 2000. (Tr. 17-43.) After the Appeals Council denied review (Tr. 794-96), Mr. Stewart sought judicial review in the Northern District of Illinois, where he then resided.

         U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow remanded the case to the agency in July 2012. Stewart v. Astrue, No. 09 C 2062, 2012 WL 2994080 (N.D. Ill. July 19, 2012). A copy of Judge Lefkow's Memorandum and Order is attached hereto.[2]

         The claim was then assigned to ALJ Jason Yoder, who held another hearing and determined that Mr. Stewart's disability had ended as of May 1, 2000. (Tr. 923-36.) However, the Appeals Council remanded the case, finding the ALJ did not fully comply with Judge Lefkow's remand order. (Tr. 941-42.) ALJ Yoder held another hearing. In a written decision dated September 16, 2015, he found that Mr. Stewart had experienced medical improvement such that he was no longer disabled as of May 1, 2000. He also found that plaintiff had not again become disabled as of his date last insured for DIB, September 30, 2004.[3] (Tr. 732-47.) As the Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction, the September 16, 2015, decision became the final agency decision now subject to judicial review.

         Plaintiff has exhausted administrative remedies and has filed a timely complaint.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

(1) The ALJ failed to follow Judge Lefkow's remand decision.
(2) The ALJ's assessment of plaintiff's physical residual functional capacity (RFC) was not supported by substantial evidence.
(3) The ALJ failed to properly accommodate plaintiff's limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace.
(4) The ALJ's assessment of the opinion evidence regarding plaintiff's mental impairments lacks substantial support.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         In order to receive DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. For these purposes, a person is disabled when he or she has 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). “Substantial gainful activity” (SGA) is defined as work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities and that is done for pay or profit. Work may be substantial even if it is done on a part-time basis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.

         Once a claimant has been awarded benefits, the agency undertakes a periodic review of continued eligibility to receive benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1589, 404.1594(a). Social Security regulations set forth a sequential eight-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is under a continuing disability. The eight steps are set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f):

1. Is the beneficiary engaging in substantial gainful activity? If yes (and there is no issue of a trial work period), the beneficiary is no longer disabled.
2. If the beneficiary is not engaging in substantial gainful activity, does his impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal the Listings? If yes, disability is continued.
3. If the beneficiary's impairments do not meet or equal the Listings, has there been medical improvement? If yes, the sequential analysis proceeds to step four; if no, it proceeds to step five.
4. Is the medical improvement related to the beneficiary's ability to work, i.e., has there been an increase in the RFC? If yes, the sequential analysis proceeds to step six; if no, it proceeds to step five.
5. If there is no medical improvement, or if the medical improvement is not related to the beneficiary's ability to work, does one of the exceptions to medical improvement apply? If the exception does apply, the beneficiary is no longer disabled. If none of the exceptions apply, the sequential analysis continues.
6. If medical improvement is related to the ability to work, are all current impairments severe in combination? If not, the beneficiary is no longer disabled.
7. If the impairments are severe, the Commissioner determines the beneficiary's RFC, and considers whether he can do his past work. If the beneficiary can do his past work, disability will be found to have ended.
8. If the beneficiary cannot do his past work, the Commissioner decides whether he can do other work given his RFC, and considering his age, education, and past work experience. If the beneficiary can do other work, he is no longer disabled; if not, disability is continued.

         The continuing disability determination is to be made “on the basis of all the evidence available in the individual's case file, including new evidence concerning the individual's prior or current condition” and on a “neutral basis . . . without any initial inference as to the presence or absence of disability being drawn from the fact that the individual has previously been determined to be disabled.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(f); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(6).

         Medical improvement is any decrease in the medical severity of the beneficiary's impairment; the determination is based on improvement in symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1). Medical improvement is related to ability to work if there has been a decrease in the severity of the impairment(s) and an increase in the functional capacity to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(3). The comparison point is the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that the individual was disabled or continued to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(7). In this case, the comparison point used by the ALJ was June 17, 1996, the date of the most recent favorable decision that plaintiff was disabled. (Tr. 734.)

         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. 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, the question before the Court is not whether Mr. Stewart continued to be disabled as of the relevant date; rather, this Court must determine 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). The reviewing court cannot “displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations.” Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). However, while judicial review is deferential, it is ...

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