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Baizer v. Berryhill

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

April 3, 2017

DEAN BAIZER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MARY M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Dean Baizer filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 423 et. seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         I. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         To recover Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. York v. Massanari, 155 F.Supp.2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001).[2] A person is disabled if he or she is unable to perform “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.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner conducts a standard five-step inquiry:

1. Is the claimant presently unemployed?
2. Does the claimant have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that interferes with basic work-related activities and is expected to last at least 12 months?
3. Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations?
4. Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?
5. Is the claimant unable to perform any other work?

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520; see Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). “An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled.” Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985). “The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on July 19, 2012, alleging that he became disabled on November 3, 2011, due to lower back pain, spondylolysis, [3] and poor blood circulation in the legs. (R. at 94). The application was denied initially on September 12, 2012, and upon reconsideration on April 4, 2013, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 94-102, 103-116). On June 18, 2014, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 35-93). The ALJ also heard testimony from Ronald A. Semerdjian, M.D., a medical expert, and Craig Johnston, a vocational expert (VE). (Id.).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on September 25, 2014. (R. at 12- 28). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity from November 3, 2011, his alleged onset date, through September 25, 2014, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 17). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's lumbar strain and sprain; L5 bilateral spondylolysis with mild spondylolisthesis; L5-S1 minimal grade one anterolisthesis with bilateral pars defect but no central stenosis;[4] bilateral neu- ral foraminal annular fissures with mild neural foraminal narrowing;[5] and left groin meralgia paresthetica were severe impairments.[6] (Id. at 17-18). 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 any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 18).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)[7] and determined that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work, except “[he] should avoid climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and may only occasionally stoop, crouch, and bend. He should avoid exposure to dangerous moving machinery or unprotected heights, may not balance on uneven or slippery surfaces, and should have no exposure to extreme cold, at zero degrees Celsius or less.” (R. at 19). At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 26). Based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step five that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including production assembler, parts sorter, and cashier. (Id. at 26-27). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability, as defined by the Act. (Id. at 26-27).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 15, 2016. (R. at 1-6). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the SSA. In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. The Court's task is “limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004); see Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014) (“We will uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, that is, such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). “In addition to relying on substantial evi- dence, the ALJ must also explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barn-hart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it “must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision.” Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). “This deferential standard of review is weighted in favor of upholding the ALJ's decision, but it does not mean that we scour the record for supportive evidence or rack our brains for reasons to uphold the ALJ's decision. Rather, the ALJ must identify the relevant evidence and build a ‘logical bridge' between that evidence and the ultimate determination.” Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 721 (7th Cir. 2014). Where the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         IV. RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE

         On October, 12, 2010, Plaintiff went to the Emergency Room after slipping and falling down two stairs at work, resulting in right lower back pain radiating to the lower leg. (R. at 383-96). A lumbar spine x-ray indicated bilateral spondylolysis with spondylolisthesis, disc space narrowing, and bilateral facet arthropathy. (Id. at 396). Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) results showed minimal anterolisthesis with bilateral pars defects, no central stenosis, and bilateral neural foraminal fissures with mild neural foraminal narrowing. (Id. at 423). On November ...


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