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Hammerslough v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Urbana Division

February 5, 2018

JOSEPH SOMMERS HAMMERSLOUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ERIC I. LONG UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Joseph Sommers Hammerslough seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Administration's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (#12) be DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (#16) be GRANTED, and the decision to deny benefits be affirmed.

         I. Background

         On April 26, 2013, Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning May 11, 2010. The Social Security Administration initially denied Plaintiff's claims on July 25, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on January 29, 2014. On March 10, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a video hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ considered evidence provided by Plaintiff's treating and consulting physicians. The ALJ also heard testimony from Bob Hammons, an impartial Vocation Expert (“VE”) and Vera Hammerslough, Plaintiff's mother.

         On May 21, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision stating that Plaintiff is not disabled under section 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (R. 34.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 11, 2010 (R. 21.) and that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of dermoid brain tumor, remote history of seizure-like episodes, atrial fibrillation, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, history of superficial vein thrombosis, congenital right sided ptosis, and extraocular movement disorder. (20 CFR 404.1520(c)). (R. 22.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). (R. 22.) Additionally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with the following non-exertional limitations. He can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can climb ramps and/or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and/or crawl no more than occasionally. He must avoid even moderate exposure to hazards, like unprotected heights or dangerous machinery. Any work should not require good peripheral vision on the right.

(R. 23-4.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work but that Plaintiff could make a successful adjustment to several other jobs in the national economy based on the VE's testimony; Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience; and the RFC. (R. 33.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision.

         II. Standard of Review

         In reviewing the ALJ's decision, this Court does not review the case de novo or replace the ALJ's findings with the Court's own assessment of the evidence. Pugh v. Bowen, 870 F.2d 1271, 1274 (7th Cir. 1989). Instead, the Court must affirm the decision to deny benefits if the ALJ correctly applied the law and supported the decision with substantial evidence. Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2011). The Supreme Court has defined substantial evidence as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Stated differently, if reasonable minds could differ as to whether Plaintiff is disabled, the Court must uphold the ALJ's decision to deny benefits. Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 978 (7th Cir. 1996). Importantly, for the Court to evaluate the ALJ's analysis, the ALJ must build a “logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” See Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision denying his request should be reversed for three reasons. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment failed to meet the requirements of SSR 96-8p. Second, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred for failing to consider Plaintiff's impairments in combination. Third, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ was incorrect in finding that Plaintiff's alleged symptoms were inconsistent with the established record.

         a. RFC

         First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment failed to meet the requirements of SSR 96-8p. “The RFC is the maximum that a claimant can still do despite his mental and physical limitations.” Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 675-76 (7th Cir. 2008). “When determining the RFC, the ALJ must consider all medically determinable impairments, physical and mental, even those that are not considered ‘severe.'” Id. SSR 96-8p also requires that an ALJ's RFC “include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations).” Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to meet these requirements by merely arriving at conclusions without providing any evidence or narrative.

         In support of this argument, Plaintiff highlights the medical evidence of two state agency doctors. First, on July 18, 2013, Dr. Gotanko stated that Plaintiff could occasionally lift 50 pounds and frequently lift 25 pounds, and that Plaintiff could stand, walk, or sit for up to six hours of an eight-hour-day. (R. 102-05.) Dr. ...


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