Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Pierce v. Berryhill

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

May 26, 2017

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


          MARY M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Joan Marie Pierce filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits 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 affirmed.


         To recover Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act.[2] York v. Massanari, 155 F.Supp.2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001). 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 her 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.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB on September 12, 2012, alleging that she became disabled on January 18, 2012, due to neck, left shoulder and back conditions, cervical fusion, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. (R. at 259-60, 292). The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 83-104, 121). On May 8, 2014, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, presented at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id. at 78-82). In light of medical records which became available shortly before Plaintiff's hearing, Plaintiff's counsel and the ALJ agreed to postpone the hearing until a later date. (Id. at 80-82). Another hearing was held on August 8, 2014, where Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified before the ALJ. (Id. at 29-77). The ALJ also heard testimony from Ashley Hinton, Plaintiff's daughter, ChukwuEmeka Frank Ezike, M.D., a medical expert (ME), and Pamela Jean Tucker, a vocational expert (VE). (Id. at 29-77, 248-50).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on October 27, 2014. (R. at 9-28). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 18, 2012. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease, status post fusion surgery, obesity, diabetes mellitus, and left shoulder tendinosis are severe impairments. (Id. at 14-15). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 16).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)[3] and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work, except

she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; occasionally reach in all directions, including overhead with the left upper extremity; frequently handle, finger and feel with the left upper extremity. She can have no exposure to or work around extreme cold and heat, wetness, hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights; [s]he can perform unskilled work tasks that can be learned by demonstration in 30 days or less of a simple, routine, and repetitive in nature; that involve occasional decision making; occasional changes in the work setting and no strict production quota or fast pace, but can meet production goals with occasional contact with the general public of an incidental and superficial nature. She is limited to occasional interaction with supervisors and co-workers.

(R. at 16). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff cannot perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 21). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, her vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including circuit board assembler, address clerk, and document preparer. (Id. at 22). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not under a disability, as defined by the Act. (Id. at 23).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 18, 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).


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the Act. 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 evidence, 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).


         Plaintiff completed high school and two years of college courses, and most recently worked full-time as a shipping clerk. (R. at 293). In February 2011, Plaintiff was injured on the job when she tripped over an electronic power jack and fell on her left side, hitting her head. (Id. at 659). Plaintiff presented to St. James Hospital and Health Center one week after her accident, where a CT scan of her cervical spine revealed that she had a minimal disc bulge at ¶ 5-6 and C6-7. (Id. at 659-60).

         Beginning in February 2011, Plaintiff began to routinely present to William Payne, M.D., for radiating neck, head, and left-side pain, which was accompanied by numbness and tingling. (R. at 638, 676-700). In October 2011, Dr. Payne ordered an MRI of Plaintiff's spine which revealed that she suffered from C5-6 cervical steno- sis[4] and foraminal herniation, which he treated with epidural injections, physical therapy, and Norco. (Id. at. 387-406, 640-42). At several of her appointments, Dr. Payne expressed concerns over proceeding with surgery due to Plaintiff's weight, which hovered around 290 pounds.[5] (Id. at 397, 399, 401, 403). In May 2012, when Plaintiff's weight was recorded as 276 pounds, Dr. Payne scheduled her for an anterior cervical discectomy[6] and fusion, which was performed on June 18, 2012. (Id. at 397; 649). Following her surgery, Plaintiff reported the procedure had “definitely helped with her pain” and that her symptoms were less severe. (Id. at 392). In August 2012, an MRI of Plaintiff's thoracic spine revealed that she had a T7-8 disk bulge, which Dr. Payne successfully treated with epidural injections and medication.[7] (Id. at 388). Plaintiff' requested to be released from Dr. Payne's care in October 2012. (Id. at 387).

         On November 26, 2012, state agency consultant Reynaldo Gotanco, M.D., performed a Physical RFC Assessment based on his review of Plaintiff's medical records. (R. at 88-89). Dr. Gotanco opined that Plaintiff could perform work at a light exertional level, limited to occasionally lift 20 pounds; frequently lift 10 pounds; stand, walk, and sit about six hours in an eight-hour workday, and frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. (Id. at 88-91). On April 4, 2013, after review of the available medical evidence, Charles Wabner, M.D., reached the same conclusion. (Id. at 100-01).

         On November 28, 2012, state agency consultant Richard Hamersma, Ph.D., performed a psychiatric assessment of Plaintiff's medical records and concluded that she had no restriction of activities of daily living, no difficulties in maintaining social functioning, mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, no repeated episodes of decompensation, and overall, that she had no severe mental impairments. (R. at 86-87). On ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.