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Stevenson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

March 1, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Louis A. Stevenson, represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Mr. Stevenson applied for disability benefits in July 2013. He initially claimed disability going back to 2008, but later amended his alleged onset date to May 22, 2009. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Koren Mueller denied the application on May 12, 2016. (Tr. 19-27.) 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.

         Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff makes the following arguments:

1. Whether the ALJ erred in finding Stevenson had “a limited 8th or 9th grade education” with the ability “to communicate in English”;
2. Whether the ALJ erred in providing a boilerplate credibility finding, and in considering sporadic activities of daily living as if they were evidence of the capacity to function in full-time work; and
3. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to consider Stevenson's lack of insurance, and instead finding Stevenson's lack of treatment indicated a lack of severity of Stevenson's conditions.

         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]

         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 Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Mueller followed the five-step analytical framework described above. She determined that Mr. Stevenson had not worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. He was insured for DIB only through December 31, 2010.[2] She found that plaintiff had severe impairments of small bowel obstruction and osteoarthritis.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the medium exertional level with some physical limitations. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff could not do his past work, but he was not disabled because he was able to do other jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national and regional economies.

         The Evidentiary Record

         The Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the ...

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