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Lamantia v. Berryhill

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

August 1, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          MARY M. ROWLAND, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Michele Babette Lamantia filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title II and XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 423 et. seq., 1381 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 Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         To recover DIB or SSI, 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).[2] 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), 416.905(a). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner conducts a standard five-step inquiry:

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 months?
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 his or her former occupation?
5. Is the claimant unable to perform any other work?

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520, 416.909, 416.920; 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 at 868.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI benefits on December 3, 2009, alleging that she became disabled on September 15, 2008, due to grand mal seizures, prior heart attack, depression, high blood pressure, asthma, allergies, and left ankle problems. (R. at 20, 424). The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 20, 163-66, 216-24). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on February 15, 2012, and at a supplemental hearing on October 16. (Id. at 20, 84-162). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on November 30, 2012. (Id. at 20, 170-81). After Plaintiff filed a request for review, the Appeals Council (AC) vacated the November 30 decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. (Id. at 20, 190-92).

         On May 12, 2014, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a remand hearing before a different ALJ. (R. at 20, 42-83). The ALJ also heard testimony from Thomas A. Gusloff, a vocational expert (VE), Judy Panek, M.D., a medical expert (ME), and David L. Biscardi, Ph.D., another ME. (Id. at 20, 42-83, 351-55).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on September 18, 2014. (R. at 20- 33). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2008, the alleged onset date. (Id. at 24). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's seizure disorder, degenerative cervical spine arthritis, arthralgias, left ankle fracture history, history of coronary artery disease, depression, and history of sub- stance abuse are severe impairments. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments, including the substance abuse disorder, meet listing 12.09. (Id. at 24-25). If Plaintiff stopped the substance use, the ALJ found the remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on Plaintiff's ability to perform basic activities. (Id. at 26). Further, if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations.[3] (Id. at 26-27).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)[4] and determined that if she stopped the substance abuse, she could perform light work, except:

[Plaintiff] can occasionally operate foot controls with the left foot, [Plaintiff] can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffold [sic], [Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl; [Plaintiff] can balance on a frequent basis. [Plaintiff] can occasionally perform overhead manipulation. [Plaintiff] is to avoid extreme concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, dust, and fumes. [Plaintiff] is to avoid work at unprotected heights and heavy moving machinery. [Plaintiff] is limited to simple, routine, repetitive work, 1-3 step tasks, interact occasionally with the public, co-workers and supervisors.

(R. at 27; see Id. at 27-31). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, she would be unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 31). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, her vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including photocopy machiner, inserting machine operator, and bagger of garments. (Id. at 31-32). Even if Plaintiff was limited to sedentary work with the same nonexertional limitations, the VE testified there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including cutter and paster, information clerk, and toy stuffer. (Id. at 32). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the substance use disorder is a contributing, material factor because Plaintiff would not be disabled if she stopped the substance use. (Id.). Therefore, Plaintiff is not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 32-33).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 10, 2015. (R. at 6-8). 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).


         Judicial 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 gen- eral, 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).

         Although 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 eviden- tiary 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. 2002).


         Plaintiff first began experiencing seizures at age 16, following a fall. (R. at 862). They became worse but by 2009, she experienced them only three times per year. (Id. at 857, 862).

         On May 17, 2007, Plaintiff presented to the emergency room after passing out at home. (R. at 694). She reported drinking more than usual. (Id.). On June 5, she presented to the emergency room for an evaluation of psychosis. (Id. at 629). She acknowledged drinking heavily for the prior two weeks. (Id. at 629-30). She was diagnosed with alcohol intoxication, possible medication reaction, and possible psychosis. (Id. at 630). On June 8, Plaintiff was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of acute alcohol intoxication. (Id. at 627). On July 15, 2008, she was admitted to the hospital after complaining of shakiness. (Id. at 730). Her boyfriend reported that she had been drinking heavily the night before; her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in the emergency room was 0.40.[5] (Id.). She was assessed with shakiness, most probably secondary to hypoglycemia, history of seizure disorder, and alcohol abuse. (Id. at 731).

         On January 6, 2009, Roopa K. Kari, M.D., performed an internal medicine consultative examination on behalf of the Commissioner. (R. at 856-60). Plaintiff was able to get on and off the exam table and ambulate 50 feet without support. (Id. at 859). Her gait was nonantalgic, range of motion normal, and straight leg test negative. (Id.). Dr. Kari's diagnostic impression included a history of grand mal seizures, history of coronary artery disease, depression, history of asthma, history of hypertension, and history of alcoholism. (Id.).

         On the same day, Barbara F. Sherman, Psy.D., performed a psychological examination on behalf of the Commissioner. (R. at 862-67). Plaintiff admitted to prior daily use of alcohol before entering a rehabilitation program; she had been in remission but relapsed recently following her mother's sudden death. (Id. at 863, 866). In the prior year, she was hospitalized after unintentionally taking an overdose of sleeping medications. (Id. at 866). Plaintiff reported no problems with socialization and generally can take care of herself but needs supervision at all times because of her seizure history. (Id. at 864). She cries often, is sometimes lethargic, has impaired concentration, appetite and sleeping, but denied hallucinations, delusions, and suicidal or homicidal ideations. (Id. at 864-65). On examination, Plaintiff was not fully time oriented, but was oriented to person and place. (Id. at 864). Her speech, concentration, memory, fund of knowledge, and conceptual and calculation abilities were all normal. (Id. at 865). She did exhibit some attention and judgment deficits. (Id.). Dr. Sherman diagnosed alcohol abuse disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, major depression, single episode, and seizure disorder. (Id. at 866).

         Plaintiff was admitted to the Good Samaritan Hospital on January 12, 2009, after complaint of shortness of breath. (R. at 875). She acknowledged that she had stopped taking her seizure medicines six to eight weeks prior. (Id. at 875). She was diagnosed with alcohol intoxication, along with chest pain and seizure disorder. (Id. at 878). The attending physician advised her to stop drinking and ...

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