United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
M. ROWLAND United States Magistrate Judge
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
THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
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). 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
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
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
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
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).
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).
then assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity
(RFC) 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
(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).
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
RELEVANT MEDICAL EVIDENCE
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).
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 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. (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 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. (Id. at 388).
Plaintiff' requested to be released from Dr. Payne's
care in October 2012. (Id. at 387).
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).
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 ...