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Huntt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

October 20, 2017

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Darrin Hunt 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 applied for benefits in April 2011, alleging a disability beginning April 15, 2010. (Tr. 18.) After holding an evidentiary hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) William E. Sampson denied plaintiff's claim in 2012. (Tr. 18-30.) The Appeals Council denied review of the decision, plaintiff appealed to this Court, and the ALJ's decision was reversed and remanded. (Tr. 830-48.) ALJ Sampson held a subsequent evidentiary hearing in 2016 and issued another unfavorable decision. (Tr. 725-764; 696-724.) Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[2] 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 decision is supported by substantial evidence and that the Commissioner made no mistakes of law. This scope of 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 whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether the ALJ made any errors 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).

         The Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Sampson followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. He determined plaintiff last met the insured status requirement on September 30, 2015 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 701.) The ALJ found plaintiff had severe impairments of post laminectomy syndrome and coronary artery disease (CAD). (Tr. 701.) ALJ Sampson determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with additional limitations, which precluded him from performing any past relevant work. (Tr. 705-14.) He found, however, that plaintiff was not disabled because he could perform other jobs that existed in the economy. (Tr. 715-16.)

         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 Darrin Hunt is a 46-year-old male. In his initial disability report from 2011, plaintiff alleged lumbar radiculitis, radiculopathy lumbosacral, chronic lower back pain, weakness in the lower extremities, and surgery on the L4/5-S limited his ability to work. He was prescribed Cymbalta, Methadone, Prednisone, Tizanidine, and Zolpidem. (Tr. 146.) In the latest function report, plaintiff stated he spent half of the day lying down or reclining to relieve pain and fatigue. On a typical day, he took his medications, woke his children for school, showered, checked the mail, watched television, read a book, and made a bowl of cereal, Poptarts, and/or a sandwich. He could occasionally fold laundry while sitting down or put clothes in the washer and dryer. He needed someone to bring him the clothesbasket to avoid lifting and bending at the waist. He did not do house or yard work because they induced pain. Plaintiff could drive, albeit limitedly. His wife shopped while he leaned on the cart for support. His conditions made it difficult to handle money because he had trouble staying on task. Plaintiff regularly went to his mother's house, the grocery store, and Wal-Mart. He could walk about half a block at a slow pace before he needed to rest for a few minutes. (Tr. 1014-21.)

         2. Evidentiary Hearing

         On remand, ALJ Sampson presided over an evidentiary hearing, which took place on May 11, 2016. (Tr. 725-64.) Plaintiff's attorney stated plaintiff was incapable of sustaining sedentary work due to failed back syndrome (FBS). Plaintiff spent up to three-quarters of his day laying down or reclining. (Tr. 729-30.)

         Plaintiff testified he sometimes experienced pain when he walked slowly. After his back surgery, plaintiff could not sit through an entire movie at the theatre because he had to periodically stand up to stretch. (Tr. 735.) Plaintiff's doctor suggested he avoid sitting for more than thirty minutes at a time, and to sit in a firm chair with a straight back when sitting. Plaintiff stated this “didn't work very good, ” so he laid in a recliner. He had to frequently change positions. (Tr. 738-39.) Reclining helped manage his pain. (Tr. 742.) Plaintiff had a TENS unit, which he used a couple of times each week for about a half an hour at a time. (Tr. 741-42.) Plaintiff's pain was never “a zero.” (Tr. 742.) His medication helped tremendously, although there was room for improvement. (Tr. 743.) On a scale of one to ten, plaintiff's pain level with his medications was a five to six. (Tr. 746-47.) Plaintiff received pain injections every six to eight weeks, which made his pain more bearable. (Tr. 747.) Walking a half a block aggravated plaintiff's pain. (Tr. 747-48.)

         A vocational expert (VE) also testified regarding several hypothetical individuals with the same age, education, and work experience as plaintiff who had various functional limitations. The VE opined that a person who had two ...

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