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Winters v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Peoria Division

April 28, 2017

ZACHARY WINTERS, on behalf of the Estate of Howard Winters, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          JOE BILLY McDADE United States Senior District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Counsel (Doc. 10) filed by the Plaintiff, Zachary Winters. In assessing whether the Court should reach out to potential counsel, the Court has reviewed the Social Security Administration transcript provided by the Defendant in this case. The Court is of the opinion that appointing counsel in this case is unnecessary as the Plaintiff has no viable grounds for successful appeal, so that motion (Doc. 10) is DENIED. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”), David W. Thompson, is AFFIRMED.


         On January 9, 2013, the claimant, Howard Winters, applied for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, claiming that he had become disabled as of February 15, 2013. (R. 43).[1] He claimed that he suffers learning disabilities, hypertension and diabetes. (R. 43). The Social Security Administration initially denied his applications on August 19, 2013. (R. 53, 65, 94). Plaintiff filed for reconsideration and was again denied on October 25, 2013. (R. 80, 92, 101). On November 19, 2013, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 106). Unfortunately, Mr. Winters passed away before the hearing. (R. 117). His son, Zachary Winters, filed the necessary paperwork to substitute into the matter (R. 123-24) and attended a hearing on January 16, 2015, in which he testified. (R. 27-37).

         On February 10, 2015, the ALJ, David W. Thompson, issued an opinion finding that the claimant was not disabled and thus not eligible for DIB or SSI. (R. 16-19). On March 31, 2015, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. (R. 11). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 14, 2016, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (R. 8). Plaintiff then filed this action with this Court on September 26, 2016. The Defendant waived any statute of limitations argument when it retroactively granted Plaintiff's request for an extension of time in which to file this civil action. (R. 1).


         I. Disability Standard

         To qualify for DIB and/or SSI under the Social Security Act, claimants must prove that they are unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 1382c(a)(3)(A). Additionally, the impairment must be of a sort “which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 1382c(a)(3)(A). With respect to a claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, claimants must also show that their earnings record has acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to accrue disability insurance benefits and that their disability began on or before the date that insurance coverage ended. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(3), 423(c)(1)(B).

         The Commissioner engages in a factual determination to assess claimants' abilities to engage in substantial gainful activity. McNeil v. Califano, 614 F.2d 142, 145 (7th Cir. 1980). To do this, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether claimants are entitled to benefits by virtue of being disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1), 416.920(a)(1); Maggard v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 376, 378 (7th Cir. 1999).

         In the first step, a threshold determination is made as to whether the claimant is presently involved in any substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not engaged in such activity, the Commissioner then considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the impairments meet the twelve-month duration requirement, the Commissioner next compares the claimant's impairments to a list of impairments contained in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of Part 404 of the Code of Federal Regulations and deems the claimant disabled if the impairment matches the list. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments do not match the list, then the Commissioner considers the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”)[2] and past relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If claimants are still able to perform their past relevant work, then they are not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If they are unable to perform their past relevant work, then the Commissioner considers the claimants' RFC, age, education, and work experience to see if they can transition to other work. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If a transition is not possible, then the claimant is deemed disabled. Id.

         The plaintiff has the burden of production and persuasion on the first four steps of the Commissioner's analysis. McNeil, 614 F.2d at 145. However, once the plaintiff shows an inability to perform any past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show an ability to engage in some other type of substantial gainful employment. Id. (citing Smith v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 587 F.2d 857, 861 (7th Cir. 1978)).

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “The standard of review that governs decisions in disability-benefit cases is deferential.” Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). When a claimant seeks judicial review of an ALJ's decision to deny benefits, this Court must only “determine whether [the ALJ's decision] was supported by substantial evidence or is the result of an error of law.” Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 369 (7th Cir. 2004). “The findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “Substantial evidence, ‘although more than a mere scintilla of proof, is no more than such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Kepple v. Massanari, 268 F.3d 513, 516 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted).

         To determine whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this Court will review the entire administrative record, but will not “reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). While this Court must ensure that the ALJ “build[s] an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, ” he need not address every piece of evidence. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. The Court will remand the case only where the ...

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