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Harrell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

December 27, 2017

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Sharon K. Harrell, proceeding pro se, 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 an onset date of April 11, 2008. (Tr. 180-83, 91-92.) The Social Security Administration denied her claim at the initial level, (Tr. 91-96), and again at the reconsideration level, (Tr. 99-106.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing. (Tr. 121-25.)

         Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Kevin R. Martin conducted a hearing on September 30, 2014 (Tr. 40-89), and issued an unfavorable decision on December 23, 2014. (Tr. 24-34.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-19); See Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009). Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         Plaintiff's Argument

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ committed reversible error in assessing plaintiff's credibility.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. 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, 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, 512-513 (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) (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 not to determine whether plaintiff was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, but to ensure that the decision was supported by substantial evidence and that the Commissioner made no mistakes 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)). 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). 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 Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Martin followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. He determined plaintiff last met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2013, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of April 11, 2008. The ALJ opined plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease (DDD) of the lumbar spine; obesity; status post right wrist fracture; and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (Tr. 26.) He further determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work except that she could only frequently handle and finger bilaterally. (Tr. 28.) ALJ Martin concluded that, although plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work, she could perform other jobs that existed in the economy. (Tr. 33.) He thus found her not disabled. (Tr. 34.)

         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 at plaintiff's argument.

         1. Agency Forms

         Petitioner was born on August 17, 1953, and was fifty-four years old on her alleged onset date. She indicated that the following conditions limited her ability to work: systemic lupus; an unhealed broken right wrist; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); fatigue; restless leg syndrome; arthritis in the right knee and hip; vertigo; memory loss; sun sensitivity; and numbness in both hands. Plaintiff weighed 180 pounds and was 5'1” tall. (Tr. 248-252.)

         Plaintiff's highest level of education was twelfth grade. She previously worked in data entry at U.S. Bank, Missouri Goodwill, Reality Systems, and Cintas Corporation from 2001 to 2011, and held a temporary job at Kelly Services from 1997 to 2000. (Tr. 253.)

         Plaintiff stated she could lift about five pounds for a few minutes; write for a short period; hold her arms out for two to three minutes; sit and stand for up to ten to fifteen minutes each; and walk for about fifteen minutes. (Tr. 278.)

         On an average day, plaintiff ate breakfast, did dishes, rested, ate lunch, watched television, made dinner, rested again, then watched more television. Plaintiff was able to clean her floors once per week, prepare meals up to six times per week, grocery shop up to twice per week, dust, feed her pets, and wash laundry. (Tr. 280, 281.) Plaintiff could not lift, open jars, write, type, stir pots, or use tongs for more than two to three minutes. She could not bend, kneel, stand, or walk long distances. She could not drive frequently due to numbness in her hands. Plaintiff experienced constant pain in her back, neck, shoulder, hip, knee, calf, wrist, and right-hand fingers. (Tr. 279, 281.)

         Petitioner stated she could not afford medical treatment because she did not have insurance. (Tr. 286.) Petitioner's spouse completed a function report, corroborating plaintiff's alleged limitations. (Tr. 260-67.)

         2. ...

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