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Ditterline v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

September 20, 2017

TERRY LEE DITTERLINE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM and ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

          In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Terry Lee Ditterline (plaintiff), represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

          Plaintiff filed for DIB on July 30, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of July 18, 2011. (Tr. 168-74.) Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on November 5, 2012, and again upon reconsideration on April 3, 2013. (Tr. 96-100, 103-06.) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stuart Janney conducted an evidentiary hearing and later issued an unfavorable opinion on January 5, 2015. (Tr. 14-24.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review and the ALJ's decision became the final agency decision. (Tr. 2-4.) Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court. (Doc. 4.)

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

         1. The ALJ's RFC assessment was erroneous.

         2. The ALJ erred in not developing the VE's testimony at the evidentiary hearing.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. For these purposes, “disabled” means 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).

         A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). “Substantial gainful activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities, and that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.

         Social Security regulations set forth a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained this process as follows:

The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation continues. The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not disabled. The fifth step assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work. If the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled.

Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-569 (7th Cir. 2011).

         Stated another way, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is serious; (3) whether the impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged to be conclusively disabling; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, given his or her age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-513 (7th Cir. 2009); Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992).

         If the answer at steps one and two is “yes, ” the claimant will automatically be found disabled if he or she suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment at step three, and cannot perform his or her past work (step four), the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform some other job. Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984). See also Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (Under the five-step evaluation, an “affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. . . . If a claimant reaches step 5, the burden shifts to the ALJ to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.”).

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to ensure that the Commissioner made no mistakes of law and that decision is supported by substantial evidence. This scope of judicial review is limited. “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). Thus, this Court must determine not whether plaintiff was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, but only whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ made no mistakes of law. See, Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995)). This Court uses the Supreme Court's definition of substantial evidence: “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         In reviewing for substantial evidence, the entire administrative record is taken into consideration, but this Court does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384, 1390 (7th Cir. 1997); Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014). While judicial review is deferential, however, it is not abject; this Court does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. See Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010), and cases cited therein.

         The Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Janney followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. He determined plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2014 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 18, 2011. The ALJ also opined plaintiff had severe impairments of bilateral shoulder osteoarthritis; hemangioma at ¶ 3 of the cervical spine; a left arm neurological defect variously diagnosed as monoeuritis; Parson-Turner Syndrome; subscapular neuropathy; axonal neuropathy; cervicobrachial syndrome; brachial plexus lesions; and thoracic outlet syndrome. (Tr. 16.)

         ALJ Janney determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with various restrictions. Although plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work, the ALJ found plaintiff could perform other jobs that existed in the economy. He was, therefore, determined not disabled. (Tr. 18-24.)

         The Evidentiary Record

         The Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the record is directed to the points raised by plaintiff.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff alleged in the agency forms that depression, arthritis, rotator cuff injuries, and issues with his left suprascapular nerve prevented him from working. (Tr. 197.) He stated that he was unable to lift anything and had limited motor skills due to a lack of nerve function and muscle deterioration. His conditions weakened his upper body and he experienced chronic pain. Plaintiff had difficulty dressing and required ...


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