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Hartline v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 6, 2017

TERRI L. HARTLINE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Terri L. Hartline (plaintiff), represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for DIB on May 15, 2012, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2009. (Tr. 11). After holding an evidentiary hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Patricia Witkowski Supergan denied the application on September 15, 2014. (Tr. 11-19). The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1). Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

1. The ALJ erred by not giving the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician controlling weight.
2. The ALJ erred in finding plaintiff not credible.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. For these purposes, “disabled” means the “inability to engage in 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). “Substantial gainful activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities, and that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.

         Social Security regulations set forth a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained this process as follows:

The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation continues. The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not disabled. The fifth step assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work. If the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled.

Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-569 (7th Cir. 2011).

         Stated another way, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is serious; (3) whether the impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged to be conclusively disabling; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, given his or her age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-513 (7th Cir. 2009); Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992).

         If the answer at steps one and two is “yes, ” the claimant will automatically be found disabled if he or she suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment at step three, and cannot perform his or her past work (step four), the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform some other job. Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984). See also Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (Under the five-step evaluation, an “affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. . . . If a claimant reaches step 5, the burden shifts to the ALJ to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.”).

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to ensure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. It is important to recognize that the scope of review is limited. “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). Thus, this Court must determine not whether plaintiff was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, but whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether any errors of law were made. See Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995)). This Court uses the Supreme Court's definition of substantial evidence, i.e., “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         In reviewing for “substantial evidence, ” the entire administrative record is taken into consideration, but this Court does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384, 1390 (7th Cir. 1997); Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014). However, while judicial review is deferential, it is not abject; this Court does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. See Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010)(and cases cited therein.)

         The Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Supergan followed the five-step analytical framework described above. She determined that plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disk disease, degenerative joint disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and headaches. (Tr. 13). ALJ Supergan then found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the exception that she could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, and crawl; tolerate occasional exposure to extreme cold and heat, wetness, humidity, vibration, fumes, and other pulmonary irritants; tolerate occasional exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights; perform unskilled work tasks that could be learned by demonstration or in thirty days or less if simple, repetitive, and routine nature; and that she would need to change positions every thirty minutes or hourly, for one to two minutes. (Tr. 14). Finally, the ALJ found that plaintiff could not perform past relevant work, but nonetheless was not disabled because jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 17-18).

         The Evidentiary Record

         The Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the record is directed to the points raised by plaintiff.

         1. Agency Forms.

         Plaintiff was born on September 26, 1975. (Tr. 181). She worked as an admitting clerk at a hospital from 1995 until 2003, and as a legal secretary from 2003 until 2009. (Tr. 186). Before this, plaintiff also held positions as a receptionist and a sales clerk. (Tr. 200). She claimed she was unable to work due to her inability to stand or sit for long periods of time, and occasional diarrhea that could last for multiple days. (Tr. 208). She was also unable to read for long periods. Id.

         Plaintiff stated that she cared for her husband, daughter, stepdaughter, and two small dogs by doing what she could to assist with everyday living. (Tr. 209). Her husband cleaned, cooked, and did laundry when she was unable to. Id. She prepared family meals approximately once or twice per week. (Tr. 210). Plaintiff needed assistance with vacuuming, sweeping, and laundry, but could dust. Id. According to plaintiff, everyday chores were very difficult and took extra time to complete. (Tr. 215).

         2. ...


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