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Sanford v. Berryhill

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

January 24, 2018

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


          Jeffrey T. Gilbert, Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Karen Sanford ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 10.] The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. [ECF Nos. 21, 23.] For the reasons stated below, Claimant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, and the Commissioner's Motion is denied. The decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


         On November 13, 2013, Claimant filed her claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and, on November 19, 2013, filed her claim for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (R. 166-171; R. 172-175.) The claims were denied on January 31, 2014, and upon reconsideration on October 23, 2014. (R. 16.) Claimant amended the alleged onset date of disability to November 7, 2013. (R. 159.) This amendment made Claimant ineligible for DIB under Title II of the Act because Claimant would not have disability insured status on the date of onset (20 CFR §§ 404.130, 404.131, and 404.315). (R. 16.) Claimant voluntarily elected to withdraw her request for a hearing as it pertained to the application for a period of disability and DIB through her representative at the hearing on April 14, 2016. (R. 16.) Thus, Claimant's DIB claim was dismissed by the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and only Claimant's claim for SSI was considered. (Id.) Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 28-50.) The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert Brian Harmon (the "VE"). (R. 33, 47-50.)

         A. The ALJ's Decision Was Favorable to Claimant

         On May 10, 2016 the ALJ granted Claimant's claim for SSI based on a finding that she was disabled under the Act. (R. 11-22.) In her decision, the ALJ went through the five-step sequential evaluation process required by the Social Security Regulations ("SSR").[2] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA") since her amended alleged onset date of November 7, 2013. (R. 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of essential hypertension, hyperlipidemia, weak left palmar muscle and quadriceps, and obesity. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 19.)

         The ALJ then found Claimant had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")[3] to perform sedentary work, except that she can occasionally lift/carry twenty pounds; sit about six of eight hours and stand/walk about two of eight hours; occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (R. 19.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Claimant was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (R. 20-21.) Lastly, at step five, the ALJ found that given Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (R. 21.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Claimant had been under a disability since November 7, 2013. (Id.)

         B. The Appeals Council Reversed the ALJ's Decision

         On July 7, 2016, the Appeals Council notified Claimant that the ALJ's May 10, 2016 decision was under review. (R. 160-165.) On August 19, 2016 the Appeals Council issued an unfavorable decision for the Claimant, finding her not disabled under the Act. (R. 1-10.) The Appeals Council held that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.970(a)(3). (R. 5.) The Appeals Council gave two reasons why substantial evidence did not support the ALJ's decision. (Id.) First, the Appeals Council found that the objective medical evidence did not substantially support the work-related limitations set forth in the ALJ's decision as of November 2013. (Id.) The Appeals Council noted that Claimant alleged joint pain in her back, knees and hands, but found that the examinations and objective imaging did not support that she had medically determinable impairments that reasonably could result in the alleged pain. (Id.) Second, the Appeals Council found that even if Claimant were assumed to be limited to a sedentary exertion level, the ALJ's decision contained an error of law. (R. 6.) The Appeals Council found that the ALJ's finding at step four of the evaluation process seemed to have relied on the VE's testimony that Claimant is unable to perform past relevant work because the work no longer exists in the national economy. (Id.) The Appeals Council disagreed and found that if Claimant is capable of performing her past work, she must be found not disabled regardless of whether that work still exists. (Id.)

         The Appeals Council's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Moothart v. Bowen, 934 F.2d 114, 116 (7th Cir. 1991) (the decision of the Appeals Council, not the ALJ, is the Commissioner's final decision).


         The Commissioner is authorized "on [her] own motion, to hold such hearings and to conduct such investigations and other proceedings as [s]he may deem necessary or proper for the administration of [federal old-age, survivors, and disability insurance benefits programs]." Bauzo v. Bowen, 803 F.2d 917, 921 (7th Cir. 1986). Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) federal courts may review the Commissioner's "final decision" and the findings of the Commissioner are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. Id. Evidence is substantial when it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted). The Commissioner "must identify the relevant evidence and build a 'logical bridge' between the evidence and the ultimate determination." Barnett v. Colvin, 2016 WL 6780325, at *5 (N.D. 111. Nov. 15, 2016) (citing Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 721 (7th Cir. 2014)).

         Here, neither party challenges the Appeals Council's discretion to review the ALJ's decision in this case. Therefore, the Commissioner's final decision is the Appeals Counsel's decision for purposes of judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and this Court is limited to reviewing the Appeals Council's decision. See Schoenfeld v. Apfel, 237 F.3d 788, n. 2 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.979, 404.981); White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992).

         III. ...

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