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Mooney v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 6, 2017

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Thomas A. Mooney seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI on May 13, 2013, alleging disability beginning April 6, 2013. (Tr. 279-93.) These claims were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 108, 110, 129, 131.) Plaintiff then filed a request for an evidentiary hearing, which administrative law judge (ALJ) Lisa Leslie conducted in April 2015. (Tr. 156-60, 47-92.) ALJ Leslie issued an unfavorable opinion in August 2015. (Tr. 19-46.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-6.) Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

1. The ALJ erroneously evaluated the opinion of Dr. Andrew Mahtani, plaintiff's primary care physician.
2. Substantial evidence did not support the credibility determination.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI and/or DIB, 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.

Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 674 (7th Cir. 2008); accord Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-69 (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, 512-13 (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 no mistakes of law were made. It is important to recognize that the 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 any errors of law were made. 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, i.e., “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). However, while judicial review is deferential, 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 ALJ's Decision

         ALJ Leslie followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. She determined plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2017, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 24.) She then opined plaintiff had severe impairments of traumatic optic neuropathy in the right eye; history of right humerus fracture with open reduction, internal fixation, and acute radial nerve palsy; extensive head and face injuries with resolved intracranial bleeding, facial reconstructive surgery with internal fixation, and encephalomalacia; history of vertebral compression fractures in the thoracic and lumbar spines without canal or foraminal stenosis; and degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 25.) ALJ Leslie found plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (Tr. 27.) Furthermore, plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with several restrictions. (Tr. 28.) The ALJ opined plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work but was not disabled because he could perform other jobs that existed in the national economy. (Tr. 38-39.)

         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

         In the agency forms, plaintiff indicated that blindness in his right eye, an inability to use his right arm, and metal plating on his face limited his ability to work. (Tr. 313.)

         Plaintiff worked as the owner and chief manager of an auto-body repair shop from 2007 to 2013, earning $1, 000 per week. (Tr. 314.) After a motorcycle accident, he had to close his business and let his employees go. (Tr. 326.)

         From the time he woke up until the time he went to bed, plaintiff got dressed, took care of his hygiene, napped, took medications, watched television, and went to doctor and therapy appointments. Plaintiff tried to cook for his son, but his son and his mother helped with cleaning, laundry, and meals. Plaintiff's pain kept him awake at night. He could not use his right arm or hand to do anything. (Tr. 320.) He needed help with combing his hair, showering, eating, and taking medications. He prepared small snacks for himself, but his mom prepared meals for him. Plaintiff had difficulty concentrating. He was not able to perform any household chores. (Tr. 321.) Plaintiff rarely went outside because of his blindness and disfigurement. He could not see well enough to drive long distances. Plaintiff went grocery shopping once a month. (Tr. 322.)

         Plaintiff's interests included motorcycles and working on cars. However, he could no longer do either. He did not socialize a lot because he was in pain and did not leave the house unless he needed to. (Tr. 324-25.)

         Plaintiff could lift five pounds. He could walk about one block before needing a ten to fifteen minute break. He had memory and concentration problems. (Tr. 324.)

         Plaintiff could sit for about thirty minutes before he needed to stand up and walk around. He experienced pain ...

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