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Cawveyy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 22, 2018

DAWN A. CAWVEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Dawn M. Cawvey, represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Ms. Cawvey applied for benefits in January 2013, alleging a disability beginning in 2010. She later amended the alleged date of onset to August 1, 2012. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Koren Mueller denied the application on May 2, 2016. (Tr. 19-31.) The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision subject to judicial review. (Tr. 1.) Administrative remedies have been exhausted and Caawvery filed a timely complaint in this Court.

         Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff makes the following arguments:

1. The ALJ failed to account for plaintiff's limitations in ability to maintain concentration, persistence or pace in assessing plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity (RFC).
2. The ALJ erred in failing to identify and resolve conflicts between the testimony of the vocational expert and information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

         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.[1]

         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 severe 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 described above. She determined that plaintiff had not worked since the alleged onset date and that she was insured for DIB through March 31, 2015.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of seizure disorder, degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, asthma, mild carpal tunnel syndrome, mood disorder, and anxiety disorder, and that these impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment. At this step, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had moderate difficulties in both social functioning and ability to maintain concentration, persistence or pace.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Cawvey had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level with some physical and mental limitations. The mental limitations were that plaintiff was limited to performing simple, repetitive, routine tasks in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving simple work-related decisions with few work-place changes. She was also limited to only occasional interaction with the public.

         Based upon the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff not was capable of performing her past work as a bus driver, but she was not disabled because she was capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         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 to the points raised by plaintiff and is confined to the relevant time period. As plaintiff addresses only her mental limitations, a ...

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