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Smith v. Berryhill

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

September 19, 2017

PATRICIA SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          M. David Weisman United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Patricia Smith appeals the Commissioner's decision denying her application for Social Security benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision.

         Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on June 3, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2012. (R. 124-25.) Her application was denied initially on July 17, 2013, and again on reconsideration on November 6, 2013. (R. 124, 132.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on December 8, 2014. (R. 35-75.) On February 19, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's application. (R. 21-29.) The Appeals Council denied review (R. 1-3), leaving the ALJ's 2015 decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. See Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

         Discussion

         The Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, affirming if it is supported by “substantial evidence in the record, ” i.e., “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “Although this standard is generous, it is not entirely uncritical, ” and the case must be remanded if the “decision lacks evidentiary support.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         Under the Social Security Act, disability is defined as 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 regulations prescribe a five-part sequential test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Under the regulations, the Commissioner must consider: (1) whether the claimant has performed any substantial gainful activity during the period for which she claims disability; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) if so, whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals any listed impairment; (4) if not, whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether she is unable to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.; Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and if that burden is met, the burden shifts at step five to the Commissioner to provide evidence that the claimant is capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2).

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity for a continuous twelve-month period. (R. 23.) At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairment of “cervicalgia status post 2009 laminectomy.”[2] (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 25.) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform her past relevant work as a “ticket printer/ticket fluffer, ” and thus was not disabled. (R. 25-28.)

         With respect to plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ said:

In developing the claimant's [RFC], I assign little weight to the 2013 opinion indicating that the claimant was totally disabled from work. The opinion is a conclusion which is reserved to the Commissioner under the Agency's rules and regulations. It does not include further details on specific functional limitations. Records suggest that this assessment may have been provided after a one time visit with this doctor. Moreover . . ., the claimant acknowledged improvement in her condition and that her symptoms subsided in May 2013 and June 2013.
State agency medical consultants reviewed the record in July 2013 and November 2013. They opined that the claimant could perform medium work with occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. I assign some weight to these opinions. However, I find that the claimant is more limited after considering the extensive medical evidence added to the record at the hearing level and in giving the claimant the some [sic] benefit of the doubt.
I acknowledge that I have not accommodated all of the claimant's alleged symptoms and limitations . . . . because . . . I find that the claimant is not fully credible. The claimant has been able to work despite her neck impairment in the past. Given her history of neck surgery and pain, I find that a limitation to light work where she could avoid overhead reaching and more than occasional climbing is reasonable. There is no evidence to support limited reaching in all direction or the allegation that the claimant has to use her hand to hold her head up. The allegation that the claimant is limited in sitting and standing due to neck pain is not supported by the medical evidence. Physical examinations fail to demonstrate limited strength in the claimant's hands, despite her complaints of trouble opening jars. Furthermore, the claimant's allegations regarding significant drowsiness as a medication side effect has not been reported as problematic to treating sources in the record. The claimant's gait has remained normal, and increased activity has been recommended by physicians.

(R. 27-28) (citations omitted).

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by making an independent RFC determination rather than adopting the RFC offered by one of the physicians. “The determination of RFC, however, is an issue reserved to the [Commissioner], ” based on “the entire record, including all relevant medical and nonmedical evidence.” Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 n.2 (7th Cir. 1995) (citations ...


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