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Watkinss v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 7, 2018

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Christopher Watkins seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB in August 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 6, 2006. (Tr. 150-58.) Plaintiff later amended his onset date to March 22, 2012. (Tr. 177.) Plaintiff's application was denied at both the initial stage and on review. (Tr. 101-04, 109-110.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Koren Mueller conducted in March 2016. (Tr. 33-74.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision in April 2016. (Tr. 12-32.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1.) Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint in this Court, alleging that (1) the ALJ erroneously evaluated the opinions of the state agency consultants, and (2) the RFC assessment lacked an evidentiary basis. (Doc. 1.)

         Legal Standards

         To qualify for benefits, a claimant must be “disabled” pursuant to the Social Security Act. The Act defines a “disability” as 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). The physical or mental impairment must result from a medically demonstrable abnormality. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). Moreover, the impairment must prevent the plaintiff from engaging in significant physical or mental work activity done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.

         Social Security regulations require an ALJ to ask five questions when determining whether a claimant is disabled. The first three questions are simple: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a physical or mental impairment; and (3) whether that impairment meets or is equivalent to one of the listed impairments that the regulations acknowledge to be conclusively disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir. 2011). If the answers to these questions are “yes”, then the ALJ should find that the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At times, an ALJ may find that the claimant is unemployed and has a serious impairment, but the impairment is neither listed in nor equivalent to the impairments in the regulations- failing at step three. If this happens, then the ALJ must ask a fourth question: (4) whether the claimant is able to perform his or her previous work. Id. If the claimant is not able to, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to answer a fifth and final question: (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, in light of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. If the claimant cannot, then the ALJ should find the claimant to be disabled. Id.; see also Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001).

         A claimant may appeal the final decision of the Social Security Administration to this Court, but the scope of review here is limited: while the Court must ensure that the ALJ did not make any errors of law, the ALJ's findings of fact are conclusive as long as they are supported by “substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable person would find sufficient to support a decision. Weatherbee, 649 F.3d at 568 (citing Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003)). The Court takes into account the entire administrative record when reviewing for substantial evidence, but it 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). But even though this judicial review is limited, the Court should not and does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010).

         The ALJ's Decision

         ALJ Mueller followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. She determined plaintiff was insured through December 31, 2012, but it is unclear if the ALJ determined whether plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date.

         At Step 2, the ALJ opined that “[t]he claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of March 19, 2006 through his date last insured of December 31, 2012.” The ALJ said later, however, that “medical records suggest that the claimant did not stop working as a pilot until March 2007” and “[w]age records document significant earnings of $48, 508 in 2006 from Ryan Airlines as well as $7, 978 in self-employment earnings as well as $43, 103 in 2007 from Ryan Airlines.” The ALJ stated:

Because of a lack of definitive evidence, the undersigned will reserve judgment on the issue of whether the claimant is performing or has performed substantial gainful activity at any time after his alleged onset date of disability. There is ample evidence in this case to find that the claimant is not disabled. . . . However, should this case be remanded or reopened for any reason, the issue of substantial gainful activity will be revisited and analyzed in greater depth.

         ALJ Mueller further determined that plaintiff had severe impairments of hypertension and morbid obesity. Plaintiff was able to perform medium work, except that he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally kneel, stoop, crouch, and crawl; and frequently reach overhead with the left dominant upper extremity.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but was not disabled because jobs existed in the national economy that he could perform. (Tr. 17-28.)

         The ...

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