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Gunter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 21, 2017

STACY A. GUNTER Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant



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

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI in September 2013 alleging an onset date of May 31, 2013. (Tr. 226-35.) Her application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 109-32, 135-60.) Plaintiff requested a hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Kevin Martin conducted in October 2015. (Tr. 7-11, 33-59.) ALJ Martin issued an unfavorable decision in November 2015. (Tr. 12-32.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-6.) Plaintiff exhausted all of her administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

         1. The ALJ erroneously found plaintiff did not meet listing 12.05(c).

         2. The ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion evidence.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI or DIB, 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 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: “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 Martin followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. He determined plaintiff met the insured status requirements through March 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 31, 2013. The ALJ found plaintiff had severe impairments of schizoaffective disorder bipolar type, personality disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. He further determined plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (Tr. 17-19.) ALJ Martin opined plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but had several non-exertional limitations. (Tr. 20-24.) Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work but was not disabled because she could perform other jobs that existed in the national economy. (Tr. 25-26.)

         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 that schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, headaches, depression, severe allergies, and blackout spells limited her ability to work. (Tr. 247.) She completed two years of college in 1997 and did not attend special education classes. (Tr. 248.) Plaintiff previously worked as a CNA and in-home health care. (Tr. 248.) In a subsequent disability report, plaintiff alleged her depression was worsening. (Tr. 286.)

         In her function report, plaintiff stated she experienced anxiety attacks, crying spells, and blackouts when she tried to work. (Tr. 265.) She had double vision and problems with concentration and memory. She found it difficult to understand directions but became too upset to ask for help. (Tr. 270.)

         Plaintiff got along with authority figures but they scared her. She was fired several times because she became upset at other people and cried. She handled stress very poorly. She had fears of her mom and dad dying and having to live alone. (Tr. 271.)

         Plaintiff fed her two dogs and cat but needed a reminder to do so. Plaintiff's mother helped pick out her clothes and combed her hair. Plaintiff was otherwise able to dress, bathe, care for her hair, shave, feed herself, and use the toilet without assistance. (Tr. 266.) Plaintiff's mother helped with her medication regimen. (Tr. 267.) Plaintiff did not prepare her own meals because she would forget to turn the stove off. She did some household chores such as drying dishes, dusting, making her bed, and picking up her room. (Tr. 267.) Plaintiff's doctor took her driver's license because she had blackouts and seizures. Plaintiff shopped for food and clothes with her mother. Plaintiff's mother helped plaintiff maintain her checkbook and pay her bills. (Tr. 268.)

         Plaintiff's mother completed a third-party function report in November 2013. She stated plaintiff became extremely anxious when she worked and blacked out. Plaintiff required reminders and followed her mother around at home. At work, plaintiff “walk[e]d around like she [was] spaced out.” (Tr. 257.) Overall, plaintiff's mother corroborated plaintiff's function report.

         2. Evidentiary Hearing

         ALJ Martin conducted an evidentiary hearing on October 1, 2015, at which plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Tr. 33-59.) Plaintiff's counsel requested a neuro-psych with IQ testing. The ALJ stated he would take the request under advisement. (Tr. 37-38.)

         Plaintiff testified she lived with her mother and father. She had a driver's license but her psychiatrist, Dr. Chandra, advised plaintiff not to drive due to her medications. (Tr. 40.) Plaintiff received a two-year Associate of Arts degree, which took her four years to complete. She failed two classes and required several tutors for each class. (Tr. 41, 48-49.) Plaintiff called her parents to pick her up from school once a week because she was scared and wanted to go home. (Tr. 49.) Plaintiff also obtained her CNA license. (Tr. 41.) Plaintiff had not worked or sought employment since May 2013. She last worked as a housekeeper but quit because people were complaining about the way she cleaned. (Tr. 42.)

         Plaintiff stated schizophrenia and anxiety attacks limited her ability to work. She had schizophrenia since grade school and experienced anxiety attacks since 2001. Every day plaintiff worked, she became anxious, her heart started pounding, and she cried. She took Paxil, Clonazepam, and Trazadone to control these symptoms. Her medications were effective. (Tr. 43-44.) Plaintiff attended group therapy at ...

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