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Stehlin v. Berryhill

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

June 2, 2017

DONALD ANTHONY STEHLIN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JEFFREY T. GILBERT UNITED STATED MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Claimant Donald Stehlin ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1. [ECF No. 6.] The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [ECF Nos. 25, 35.] For the reasons discussed below, Claimant's motion for summary judgment is denied, and the Commissioner's motion is granted. The decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Claimant filed an application for disability insurance benefits on May 8, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 28, 2011. (R. 58.) After an initial denial and a denial on reconsideration, Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing. (Id. at 66, 77, 92.) Claimant appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ") on September 10, 2014. (Id. at 24-57.) A vocational expert, Stephen Sprauer, also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

         On November 12, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's application for benefits based on a finding that he was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 10-22.) The opinion followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by Social Security Regulations. 20 § C.F.R. 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of March 28, 2011. (R. 12.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease. (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.) (Id. at 13.)

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with the following limitations: Claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can no more than occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and twist at the waist. (R. 14-15.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a landscape supervisor. (R. 18.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Id.)

         On December 10, 2014, Claimant sought review of the ALJ's decision, (R. 5-6.) On January 21, 2016, the Social Security Appeals Council denied the request for review. (Id. at 1.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.) See also 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. Baumhart, 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. 2008). 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. ANALYSIS

         Claimant presents three issues for review. First, Claimant argues that the ALJ's conclusion at step three was not supported by substantial evidence. (Pl.'s Mem. at 6.) Second, Claimant contends that the ALJ erred in determining Claimant's RFC. (Id. at 9.) Finally, Claimant argues that the ALJ erred in assessing the credibility of Claimant's testimony and allegations. (Id. at 13, )

         A. The ALJ's Step Three Finding Is Supported by Substantial Evidence

         Claimant argues that the ALJ's step three analysis is erroneous (1) because it is perfunctory; and (2) because it fails to undertake an equivalence analysis. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         1. The ALJ's step three analysis is not perfunctory

         At step three in the sequential evaluation process, an ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment meets or medically equals one of the impairments found within the regulatory listings. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If so- and if the impairment has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months-the claimant is presumed to be "disabled." See Barnett v. Barnhart,381 F.3d 664, 668 (7th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509 ("We call this [twelvemonth condition] the duration requirement."). A claimant "has the burden of showing that his impairments meet a listing" and "must show that his impairments satisfy all of the various criteria specified in the listing." Ribaudo v. Barnhart,458 F.3d 580, 583 (7th Cir. 2006). Nevertheless, when the ALJ fails to mention the specific listing she is considering and only provides "perfunctory analysis, " remand may be required. See Id. at 583 (quoting Barnett, 381 F.3d at 668); see also Rice v. ...


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