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Brooks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 28, 2018

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



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

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for DIB on June 21, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of September 25, 2011. (Tr. 135-41.) The application was denied initially and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 63-83.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gwen Anderson conducted on February 11, 2016. (Tr. 27-62.) ALJ Anderson issued an unfavorable decision thereafter. (Tr. 11-26.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review and the ALJ's decision became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-4.) Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely Complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         Plaintiff's Argument

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erroneously evaluated the medical opinions in the record.

         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 Anderson determined plaintiff met the insured requirements through March 31, 2018 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 14, 2012, the alleged onset date. The ALJ opined plaintiff had severe impairments of disorders of the muscle, ligament and fascia, osteoarthrosis and allied disorder, and disorder of the back. (Tr. 16.)

         ALJ Anderson found plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of light work, except she could not climb ladders, ramps, or scaffolds, kneel, crouch, crawl, or squat more than occasionally. Additionally, plaintiff could never work around unprotected heights and could only balance on level surfaces. (Tr. 17.)

         The ALJ concluded that although plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work, she was not disabled because jobs existed in the national economy that she could perform. (Tr. 21.)

         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 plaintiff's argument.

         1. Agency Forms

         In the agency forms, plaintiff indicated that back pain and arthritis in her knees limited her ability to work. Plaintiff had a twelfth-grade education. For the previous fifteen years, plaintiff cleaned hotels and offices, assisted the elderly, and worked in sales. (Tr. 178-79, 206.)

         Plaintiff experienced back pain if she stood for over an hour, and she could not walk one block without shortness of breath. Throughout an average day, plaintiff remained in bed and got up to look for work. She tried to clean her house but could not make her bed because the mattress was too heavy to lift. Back pain also interfered with sleeping. Plaintiff could prepare simple meals but her husband or sister did most of the cooking. She found it difficult to bend, twist, and move around. Plaintiff could put clothing into the laundry machine and fold them while sitting down. She cleaned the restroom, washed dishes, and vacuumed. Her sister helped her clean. Plaintiff could grocery shop for about thirty minutes by helping her husband put food in the cart. (Tr. 195-98, 212-15.)

         Plaintiff was unable to hold her grandchildren because they were too heavy. Her hobbies included watching television and playing card games. She also went to church on Wednesdays and Sundays. (Tr. 199-202, 216-19.)

         2. The Evidentiary Hearing

         ALJ Anderson presided over an evidentiary hearing in February 2016, at which plaintiff was ...

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