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Chairs. 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 John Benny Chairs, Sr. seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.[2]

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI in July 2013 alleging a disability onset date of March 15, 2013. (Tr. 193-207.) His applications were denied at the initial level and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 73-117.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which administrative law judge (ALJ) Mary Ann Poulose conducted in February 2015. (Tr. 32-67.) ALJ Poulose issued an unfavorable decision thereafter. (Tr. 14-31.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-6.) Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a timely Complaint in this Court (Doc. 1).

         Issued Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by not articulating the residual functional capacity (RFC) in a function-by-function assessment. He also asserts the ALJ erroneously evaluated his allegations of pain and failed to include an assistive device restriction in the hypothetical RFCs at the evidentiary hearing. Plaintiff also contends the Appeals Council applied the wrong standard in evaluating the ALJ's decision.

         Applicable 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 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 Poulose determined plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2013, the alleged onset date. She found plaintiff had a severe impairment of status-post right pilon fracture with post-traumatic arthritis. (Tr. 19.) The ALJ opined plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of sedentary work. Although plaintiff could not perform past relevant work, he was not disabled because other jobs existed in the economy that he could perform. (Tr. 21-26.)

         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.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born in October 1966. He alleged that a broken ankle, chronic pain, and depression limited his ability to work. He previously worked as a custodian at a school and as a furniture mover at a moving company. (Tr. 217-22.)

         Plaintiff underwent two surgeries for an ankle injury and experienced constant swelling and pain thereafter. He could not stand for longer than five minutes without pain and found it difficult to bend and kneel. He could walk about ten feet before he needed to rest. Plaintiff used a cane and crutches and wore a brace. (Tr. 235, 240-41.)

         2. ...

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