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Jeremiah v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 7, 2017

DEBRA J. JEREMIAH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT DISTRICT JUDGE

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Debra J. Jeremiah seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for DIB in October 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 31, 2010. (Tr. 177-82, 183-84.) Plaintiff's claim was initially denied, and then again at the reconsideration level. (Tr. 77, 91.) She requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Kevin Martin conducted in December 2014. (Tr. 112-13, 39-65.) ALJ Martin issued an unfavorable opinion in May 2015 and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 17-38, 1-7.) Plaintiff exhausted all of her administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff makes the following arguments:

1. The ALJ improperly weighed the medical opinions.
2. The ALJ's credibility determination was erroneous.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB and 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, the Court must determine: (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) ([u]nder 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 only 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), and cases cited therein.

         The ALJ's Decision

         ALJ Martin followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. He determined plaintiff met the insured status requirements through March 31, 2015 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 31, 2010. (Tr. 22.) The ALJ opined plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease (DDD) of the lumbar spine status post fusion; obesity; carpal tunnel syndrome; diabetes with neuropathy; status post right hand fracture; status post left wrist fracture; status post rib fractures; major depressive disorder; and pain disorder. (Tr. 23.) The ALJ then determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with several restrictions. (Tr. 24.) Although plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work, she was capable of performing other jobs that existed in the economy and was, therefore, not disabled. (Tr. 31-32.)

         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 her disability report, plaintiff indicated DDD of the lumbar spine, spinal stenosis, a lumbar fusion with hardware, and diabetes limited her ability to work. She weighed 226 pounds and was five-foot, six-inches tall. (Tr. 213.)

         Plaintiff worked as a caregiver in 1997, as a cashier from 1995 to 1996, and as a dispatcher from 1999 to 2010. (Tr. 215.) She struggled with pain in her lower back for several years, and the condition progressively worsened until she became unable to work in January 2010. She tried several treatment options, including physical therapy, injections, and a lumbar fusion with hardware in 2006. She had difficulty walking, standing, and sitting for significant periods. She also had difficulty lifting, carrying, bending, twisting, turning, kneeling, and squatting. Plaintiff struggled with falling and staying asleep at night. Her concentration and focus were impaired because of pain and fatigue. Plaintiff also had diabetes, which she controlled with diet. (Tr. 220.)

         Plaintiff completed a function report in December 2012. She stated in the mornings, she prepared coffee, made sure her kids woke up and got ready for school, watched television, and folded laundry. In the afternoons, plaintiff prepared lunch and then watched television, read, sewed, and crocheted. Plaintiff took about an hour-long nap then socialized with her children after they returned home from school. In the evening, she ...


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