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Burns v. Berryhill

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

August 4, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Frank Burns filed this action seeking reversal of the Commissioner's denial of disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) et seq. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 638(c). (Dkt. 7.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

         Determining a Disability under the Act

         A claimant must show a disability under the Act in order to obtain disability insurance benefits. York v. Massanari, 155 F.Supp.2d 973, 978 (N.D. Ill. 2001). To do so, a claimant must establish 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). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step, sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant suffers from a disability: (1) whether the claimant has performed any substantial gainful activity during the period for which she claims disability; (2) if not, whether she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) if so, whether her impairment meets or equals any impairment enumerated in the regulations; (4) if not, whether she has the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether she can perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001). “The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000).

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed his application for Disability Insurance Benefits on October 29, 2013 alleging disability beginning October 13, 2010. (R. 75.) His application was initially denied, and again upon reconsideration. (Id. at 84, 97.) Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 15, 2016. (See id. at 18.) The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 28.)

         The Court does not review the medical record in detail but in sum, Plaintiff alleges he is disabled due to pain in his upper right and left extremities, specifically, his shoulder, elbow, and wrist on the right side, and his elbow on the left side. (R. 390-92, 556.) Applying the five-step analysis, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date through the date he was last insured. (R. at 20.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's dysfunction of major joints and carpal tunnel syndrome constituted severe impairments. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Id. at 21.)

         The ALJ next evaluated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determined Plaintiff can perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(c)[2] with the exception that Plaintiff should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (R. 22.) Additionally, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff can frequently reach overhead with the right upper extremity. (Id.) On consideration of Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff could still perform his past relevant work as a heavy equipment mechanic. (Id. at 27.) The ALJ further concluded that his work as a heavy equipment mechanic did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's RFC. (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ held that Plaintiff lacked a cognizable disability as delineated by the Act. (Id. at 28.)

         The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 3). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the Commissioner's final decision. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).

         Standard of Review

         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 general, 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 42 U.S.C. § 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); 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.”) (citations 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) (citations omitted). “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. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). 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 evidentiary 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 asserts that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ (1) improperly assessed Plaintiff's subjective symptoms; (2) improperly evaluated Plaintiff's RFC; and (3) failed to make the required finding of fact in determining Plaintiff could perform his past work. (Pl's. Mem. at 9-14.) The Court addresses Plaintiff's arguments below.

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider all “symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which [the claimant's] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence.” 20 C.F.R. § 202.1529. In the spring of 2016, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) “updated its guidance about how to evaluate symptoms in disability claims by issuing SSR 16-3p. The new ruling eliminates the term ‘credibility' from the SSA's sub-regulatory policies to ‘clarify that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of the individual's character.'” McCammond v. Colvin, No. 15 C 6589, 2016 WL 3595736, at *2 (N.D. Ill. July 5, 2016). A Court will only overturn an ALJ's credibility determination if it is “patently wrong.” Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 367 (7th Cir. 2013) (internal ...

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