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Byndum v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

December 15, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,



         Chatonya Byndum (“Plaintiff”) filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Titles XVI and II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). 42 U.S.C§§ 405(g), 423 et seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Dkt. 14). Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on June 24, 2017. (Dkt. 17). The Commissioner filed her motion on August 9, 2017. (Dkt. 19). For the reasons stated below, this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on April 9, 2013. (R. at 17). In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning January 1, 2013. (Id.) These claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id.) On November 20, 2015, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Melissa M. Santiago. (Id.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Brian L. Harmon, an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). (Id.)

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on December 15, 2015. (R. at 17- 27). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 1, 2013. (Id. at 19). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lupus, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and substance abuse. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 20). The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) as lifting/carrying 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, standing/walking about six hours in an eight hour workday, and sitting about six hours in an eight hour workday. Additionally, the ALJ limited Plaintiff to:

Never crawl, kneel, or climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally crouch, stoop, balance, and climb ramps and stairs; avoid exposure to direct sunlight; simple, routine instructions and tasks; low stress work environment where changes are infrequent and gradually introduced; and frequent judgment is required on the job. (R. at 21-22).

         The ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past work. (Id. at 25). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including mail clerk, cashier II, and cleaner housekeeper. (Id. at 26). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, from the alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 27).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 22, 2016. (Id. at 1). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-72 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the SSA. In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the Plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. The Court's task is “limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion. Idoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004); Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance. Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). In addition, the ALJ must explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review. Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Although great deference is given to the ALJ's determination, the Court must do more than “rubber stamp” the ALJ's decision. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). This deferential standard also does not mean that the Court scours the record for supportive evidence or “rack[s] [its] brains” for reasons to uphold the ALJ's decision. Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 721 (7th Cir. 2014). The ALJ must identify the relevant evidence and build a “logical bridge” between that evidence and the ultimate determination. Id. Where the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).


         Plaintiff raises a number of arguments challenging the ALJ's decision. After reviewing the record and the parties' briefs, this Court is persuaded by two arguments in particular. The Court concludes that remand is warranted because the ALJ 1) did not properly weigh the medical opinion evidence and 2) failed to appropriately analyze Plaintiff's subjective symptoms.[1]

         I. The ALJ did not properly weigh the medical ...

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