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Gunn v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

March 1, 2018

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



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Leroy Gunn 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.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on November 14, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 15, 2011. (Tr. 166-73.) His application was denied at the initial level and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 61-70, 73-86.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Michael A. Lehr conducted on February 18, 2016. (Tr. 32-60.) ALJ Lehr issued an unfavorable decision thereafter. (Tr. 20-27.) The Appeals Council denied review of plaintiff's application, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 3-8.) Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a timely Complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to build a logical bridge between the evidence and the RFC assessment and did not meet his burden to fully and fairly develop the evidentiary record.

         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.[2]

         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 Lehr determined plaintiff met the insured status requirement through December 31, 2013 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2011. Plaintiff had the severe impairment of osteoarthritis of the bilateral hips and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. The ALJ determine plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, except he could only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and could not work in concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, vibration, or hazards; and could not operate foot controls. ALJ Lehr also opined plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work but was not disabled because jobs existed that he could perform. (Tr. 20-27.)

         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

         In the agency forms, plaintiff indicated that the following conditions limited his ability to work: fibromyalgia, sciatica, scoliosis, ataxia, shooting pain in his eyes and ear, recurring sinus infections, mild dystonia, neck spasms, TMJ, rectum pain, and problems bending at the knees. His hands and arms also locked up. Plaintiff ...

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