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Newcomb v. Berryhill

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

July 27, 2017

AMY S. NEWCOMB, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Susan E. Cox, U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Amy S. Newcomb (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed a brief [Dkt. 13] to reverse the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, and Defendant responded with a motion for summary judgment [Dkt. 20]. We hereby construe Plaintiff's brief in support of reversing the decision of the Commissioner as a motion. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is granted and the Commissioner's motion is denied. The Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background

         a. Procedural History and Claimant's Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on August 31, 2010, with an alleged onset date of disability as of September 1, 2008. [Record (“R.”) 476, 489.] Her last day of work coincided with her alleged onset date. [R. 215.] Plaintiff was last insured for disability insurance benefits on June 30, 2010. [R. 20.] To obtain benefits, Plaintiff would have to establish disability onset on or before her date last insured, which was June 30, 2010. See 42 U.S.C. § 416(i).

         During the application process for disability insurance benefits, Plaintiff claimed she stopped working on the alleged onset date due to a combination of physical and mental impairments: fibromyalgia, narcolepsy, depression, and migraine headaches. [R. 215.] Plaintiff's relevant past work consisted of three occupations. From March 2000 through March 2001, she worked as a receptionist at a doctor's office. [R. 216.] From September 2001 through November 2004, she worked as a manager at Jimmy John's sandwich shop. [Id.] From September 2007 through September 2008, she worked as a temporary data input clerk for the Will County Assessor's Office. [Id.] As a temporary clerk, her primary duties consisted of inputting data; as a dayshift sandwich shop manager, her responsibilities included making schedules, ordering food from vendors, managing staff, and paying bills. [R. 45, 47.]

         After her claim was denied at all stages of the administrative process, Plaintiff appealed to this Court. On January 21, 2015, District Court Magistrate Judge Sidney I. Schenkier vacated the Commissioner's decision and remanded Plaintiff's matter to the Commissioner for new proceedings. [R. 609-618.] See Newcomb v. Colvin, No. 13 C 7831, 2015 WL 303364 (N.D. Ill. January 21, 2015).

         The Social Security Appeals Council remanded the case for further proceedings pursuant to the District Court's Order, after which the ALJ received additional evidence and held a new hearing on December 4, 2015. [R. 496-572, 620-622.] On January 21, 2016, the ALJ issued a new denial of Plaintiff's claim, finding that, although Plaintiff's impairments left her unable to perform her prior work, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed, thus making her not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. [R. 473-489.] The Appeals Council then denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. This second ALJ decision is currently under review by this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         b. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ issued a written decision on January 21, 2016, following the five-step analytical process required by 20 C.F.R. 404.1520. [R. 473-489.] As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2010. [R. 478.] At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of September 1, 2008. [Id.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of narcolepsy, depression, anxiety, and fibromyalgia type syndrome. [Id.] Other impairments were determined to be non-severe. [R. 478-481.] At step three, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. [R. 481.] Prior to step four, the ALJ found that through the date of last insured, Plaintiff maintained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, but could not stand or walk more than 30 minutes at a time; could do no more than frequent reaching in all directions with the upper extremities bilaterally; no more than frequent climbing of ramps; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no more than occasional climbing of stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; no more than frequent handling, feeling, fingering, pushing, or pulling with the upper extremities bilaterally; no more than frequent operation of foot controls bilaterally; no more than occasional operation of a motor vehicle; no more than occasional exposure to extreme cold; and no more than frequent exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous moving machinery, humidity, wetness, dust, odors, fumes, pulmonary irritants, extreme heat, and vibrations. [R. 482-483.] Furthermore, Plaintiff could tolerate loud noise such as heavy traffic, but due to daytime fatigue, depression, and anxiety, was limited to understanding and remembering simple instructions to perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a low stress work environment without fast-paced production rates or strict quota requirements, while still being able to meet end-of-day requirements. [Id.] At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a restaurant manager, medical receptionist, and general office clerk. [R. 488.]

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that, upon consideration of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed. [Id.] In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ relied on testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”), who was given a hypothetical where a claimant had the same age, education, and work history as Plaintiff, but faced the additional RFC limitations the ALJ determined Plaintiff to have prior to step four. [R. 561-562.] The VE testified an individual with the limitations posed by the ALJ could not perform Plaintiff's past work, but could perform other available work. [R. 562.] First, the VE testified an individual with Plaintiff's RFC restrictions could perform the job of “receptionist, sedentary, unskilled, SVP 2.”[2] [Id.] The VE testified 149, 000 such jobs existed in the national economy, and the job's Dictionary of Occupation Titles (“DOT”) code was 237.367-046. [Id.] Second, the VE stated the job of “order clerk” could be performed with the provided RFC limitations, and that 8, 500 such jobs existed in the national economy. [R. 563.] The VE attested that the job was sedentary, SVP 2, and corresponded to DOT 209.567-014. [Id.] Finally, the VE testified, per the ALJ's hypothetical, “there are general office clerks, 66, 400 of those in the national economy, sedentary, SVP 2, and the DOT for that job is 209.587-010.” [Id.]

         Next, the ALJ gave the VE a second hypothetical, adding additional restrictions of “occasional, brief, and superficial contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public.” [Id.] With these additional restrictions, the VE eliminated the receptionist and order clerk positions, and reduced the availability of the general office clerk job by two-thirds in the national economy. [R. 563-564.] When questioned by Plaintiff's attorney, the VE noted the reduction in availability of general office clerk jobs was a result of the fact that the job is a “smaller organization type thing where you're doing lots of different things [including] answer[ing] some phones, ” leading to interaction with the public that exceeds brief and superficial. [R. 565.] The VE responded affirmatively when asked by the ALJ if his testimony was consistent with the DOT and its companion volumes. [R. 564.]

         Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined Plaintiff would have been able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as receptionist, order clerk, and general office clerk. [R. 489.] Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. [Id.]

         c. Issues ...

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