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Schuck v. Berryhill

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

June 28, 2017

CAROLINE M. SCHUCK, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JEFFREY T. GILBERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Claimant Caroline M. Schuck ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"), denying Claimant's applications for disability insurance under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 8.]

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, both Claimant and the Commissioner moved for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 20, 27.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied. The decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Claimant filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on November 14, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of November 26, 2007. (R. 14.) After an initial denial and a denial on reconsideration, Claimant filed a request for an administrative hearing. (R. 151-52.) Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on August 18, 2014. (R. 28-86.) A Vocational Expert ("VE") also testified. (R. 77-84.)

         On January 29, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income based on a finding that, from her alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision, Claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 11-27.) The opinion followed the five-step sequential evaluation process required by Social Security Regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. As an initial matter, the ALJ noted Claimant met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2009. (R. 16.) At step one, the ALJ found that although Claimant had worked after the alleged disability onset date, her work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity, and therefore, Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 26, 2007. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found Claimant had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status-post fusion. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found 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. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926) ("the Listings") (R. 17.)

         Before step four, the ALJ determined Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") changed during the alleged period of disability and, therefore, the ALJ crafted two RFC determinations. The first RFC covered the time-period from November 26, 2007 through December 1, 2011, during which the ALJ determined that Claimant had the RFC to perform light work, but could only lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. (R. 17.) Claimant also could only stand or walk for two hours and sit for six hours during an eight-hour workday. (Id.) She could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, but she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding. (Id.) The second RFC applied to Claimant's ability to work after December 2, 2011, and the ALJ determined that Claimant continued to have the ability to perform light work with the additional limitation that she could sit continuously for thirty minutes and stand or walk continuously for forty-five minutes, and between these activities Claimant would need five minutes in a different position. (R. 17.) The ALJ also found that Claimant should avoid "concentrated exposure to hazardous machines with moving mechanical parts, work in high exposed places, and working with sharp objects." (Id.) Based on this RFC determination, the ALJ concluded at step four that Claimant was not capable of performing her past relevant work. (R. 20.)

         At step five, the ALJ considered whether Claimant is able to do other work given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. (Id.) Based on Claimant's age, education, and work experience, the ALJ determined there are a significant number of jobs that exist in the economy for Claimant. (Id.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found Claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 21.) The Social Security Appeals Council subsequently denied Claimant's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-7.) See 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. Barnhart, 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 his 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. Per ales, 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. DISCUSSION

         Claimant presents three issues for review. First, Claimant argues the ALJ erred in her assessment of Claimant's RFC by not supporting her determination with substantial evidence. (Pl.s Mem. [ECF No. 20], at 8-11.) Second, Claimant argues the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the opinion of Claimant's treating physician. (Id. at 12-15.) ...


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