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Hill v. Berryhill

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

March 16, 2017

KIMBERLY R. HILL, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey T. Gilbert Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Kimberly R. Hill ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's applications for disability insurance under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 7.]

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF No. 18; ECF No. 22.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied. The decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Claimant filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on May 6, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2010. (R. 32-33, 87.) After an initial denial and a denial on reconsideration, Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing. (R. 34.) At a hearing held by an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ") on June 11, 2013, Claimant appeared without representation and testified. (R. 360-395.) A Vocational Expert ("the VE") also testified. (R. 393-400.)

         On September 19, 2013, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's applications for benefits based on a finding that, from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision, she was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 21-31.) The opinion followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by Social Security Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). (Id.) At step one, the ALJ reserved her ruling on whether the Claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 1, 2010. (R. 23.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of sarcoidosis, asthma, obesity, hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"), and intermittent left ankle pain/swelling. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) (R. 24.)

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with the following limitations: occasionally stoop, crawl, crouch, climb, and kneel. (Id.) The ALJ went on to limit the Claimant's exposure to dust, odors, fumes, and gases. (Id.) Based on this RFC determination and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded at step four that Claimant was capable of performing her past relevant work as a compiler, mail clerk, telephone solicitor, and hair braider. (R. 30.) The ALJ also found that Claimant was capable of performing past relevant work as a recreation supervisor and arranger as generally performed in the economy. (Id.) Her decision further indicates that these jobs did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the Claimant's RFC. (Id.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id.)

         The Social Security Appeals Council subsequently denied Claimant's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 4-8.); see Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). Claimant now seeks review in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final decision if the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-107 (2000). Under such circumstances, the district court reviews the decision of the ALJ. Id. Judicial review is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in reaching her decision. Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1097.

         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). A "mere scintilla" of evidence is not enough. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). Even when there is adequate evidence in the record to support the decision, however, the findings will not be upheld if the ALJ does not "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion." Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). If the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot stand. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009).

         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). Though the standard of review is deferential, a reviewing court must "conduct a critical review of the evidence" before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Eichstadt v, Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). It may not, however, "displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008J. Thus, judicial review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings. Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1097. The reviewing court may enter a judgment "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Claimant argues that the following errors committed by the ALJ mandate remand. She contends that the ALJ erred in her decision to deny Claimant benefits because (1) the ALJ did not obtain a valid waiver of counsel and failed to adequately develop the record; (2) the ALJ's assessment of Claimant's RFC was insufficient; (3) there was no evidence that Claimant could perform past relevant work; and (4) Claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms were credible.[2] The Court finds that the ...


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