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Stevensonn v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 6, 2017

KAREN LOUANN STEVENSON, 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 Karen Louann Stevenson, represented by counsel, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability benefits in August 2014 alleging disability beginning on August 6, 2014. (Tr. 331, 338.) After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Mathias Onderak denied the applications on February 9, 2016. (Tr. 175-84.) The Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 189.) After remand by the Appeals Council, ALJ Onderak held another hearing and again denied the applications on September 6, 2016. (Tr. 19-32.) The Appeals Council denied review, and the September 6, 2016, decision became the final agency decision subject to judicial review. (Tr. 1.)

         Plaintiff has exhausted administrative remedies and has filed a timely complaint.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

         1. The residual functional capacity (RFC) determination was not supported by substantial evidence.

         2. The credibility determination was erroneous.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[2] For these purposes, “disabled” means unable “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 Secretary 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 understand that the 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 during the period under review, 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). 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 Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Onderak followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that Ms. Stevenson had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that she was insured for DIB through December 31, 2018.[3]

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of cystocele without mention of uterine prolapse, overactive bladder, female stress/urge incontinence, non-insulin dependent type 2 diabetes with related mild peripheral neuropathy, and dizziness.[4] He found that these impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ also found that plaintiff suffered from depression and personality disorder but that these were not severe impairments. Accordingly, he did not assess any mental limitations.

         ALJ Onderak concluded that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following limitations:

• Close proximity to an accessible bathroom;
• Option to take regularly scheduled work breaks at her ...

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