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Kohlhaas v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

February 28, 2018

SARAH L. KOHLHAAS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT, DISTRICT JUDGE.

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

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for benefits in May 2013, alleging that she became disabled as of December 3, 2011: the day after her previous application for disability benefits had been denied. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Kevin R. Martin denied the application on December 29, 2015. (Tr. 13-31.) The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1.) Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Through counsel, plaintiff raises the following points:

1. Whether the ALJ erred in giving significant weight to the state-agency opinion while failing to explain why he disagreed with the sitting aspect of the opinion;
2. Whether the ALJ erred in weighing every opinion in the record except for that of the VE, despite the VE opinion being baseless and flawed;
3. Whether the ALJ erred in adopting the VE opinions as controlling without rationale; and
4. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to identify and resolve conflicts between the VE's opinions and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”).

         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]

         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).

         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 ...


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