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Whyde v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 23, 2018

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Kimberly K. Whyde seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on August 5, 2013, and for SSI on August 7, 2013. She alleged a disability onset date of January 31, 2011. (Tr. 227-34.) Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial level and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 95-122, 125-56.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stuart T. Janney conducted on December 15, 2015. (Tr. 40-94.) ALJ Janney ultimately issued an unfavorable decision on January 12, 2016. (Tr. 17-34.) The Appeals Council denied review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-6.) Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint in this Court (Doc. 1).

         Issued Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erroneously evaluated the medical opinions, improperly assessed plaintiff's credibility, and failed to respond to an objection plaintiff raised in a post-hearing memorandum.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for benefits, a claimant must be “disabled” pursuant to the Social Security Act.[2] 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 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 that 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 Janney found plaintiff met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2016, and had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since January 31, 2011. He opined plaintiff had severe impairments of left knee arthritis; bilateral hip and bilateral sacroiliac joint osteoarthritis; obesity; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; obstructive sleep apnea; ADHD; chronic schizophrenia and/or schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type); major depressive disorder; bipolar disorder (type I); anxiety; and panic disorder. (Tr. 19.)

         The ALJ found plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work with several additional limitations. (Tr. 22.) ALJ also found plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work but was not disabled because jobs existed that plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 31-33.)

         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.

         1. Agency Forms

         In her agency forms, plaintiff indicated the following conditions limited her ability to work: chronic depression, migraines, anxiety, fibromyalgia, arthritis, ADD, and bipolar disorder. (Tr. 253.) Plaintiff had a twelfth-grade education and throughout the previous fifteen years worked as a case manager assistant at Murphysboro Health Center, performed clerical work at Jackson Vision and Laser Center, and was a pharmacy technician at Kroger Pharmacy. (Tr. 255.)

         Plaintiff stated that she woke up around four to six a.m. because she could not sleep due to pain. She took her medication upon waking up and could barely move or walk. She had difficulty dressing, bathing, and using the toilet. Plaintiff was able to prepare sandwiches and frozen dinners. She could complete some cleaning, wash laundry, and care for her animals. She performed these chores for four to six hours a day, once or twice per week. Her daughter helped her on bad days. Plaintiff grocery shopped on a weekly basis. She could only lift about ten pounds and she experienced pain with squatting, bending, and kneeling. She could only stand for a short period, and even sedentary tasks were difficult. Climbing stairs was almost impossible for plaintiff. She could walk about fifty feet before she needed to rest for ten to fifteen minutes. She could pay attention for about ten minutes and did not follow instructions well. (Tr. 277-84.)

         Plaintiff had difficulty opening lids because she had no strength in her arms, wrists, or hands. She had problems sorting and filing papers because she easily lost concentration. Plaintiff also lost her train of thought and confused numbers when she dialed the phone. Weakness in her arms and upper body made it difficult for her to carry bags of groceries, baskets of laundry, or trash bags. She also had problems reaching overhead because she got dizzy and light-headed. (Tr. 286.)

         Plaintiff's depression left her feeling hopeless and helpless. Her anxiety caused her stress and made it difficult to get along with others. Fibromyalgia and arthritis woke her up at night. (Tr. 289-90.)

         In disability reports from January and August 2014, plaintiff stated all of her conditions were more severe. (Tr. 304, 337.)

         2. Evidentiary Hearing

         ALJ Janney presided over an evidentiary hearing on December 17, 2015, at which plaintiff was represented by counsel.

         Plaintiff had a driver's license and was able to drive for short distances. Plaintiff weighed two-hundred-and-thirty pounds and was five-foot, nine-inches tall. She had a gastric sleeve and planned to undergo a bypass procedure. Plaintiff lost seventy pounds ...

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