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Sugg v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

March 28, 2018

JENNIFER L. SUGG, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Jennifer L. Sugg seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her 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 September 18, 2009, alleging an onset date of October 1, 2007. (Tr. 203-12.) She later amended her onset date to September 6, 2009. (Tr. 223.) Plaintiff's claims were denied initially in March 2010 and again upon reconsideration in May 2010. (Tr. 104-15.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Joseph Warzycki conducted in August 2011 and March 2012. (Tr. 42-95.) ALJ Warzycki issued an unfavorable decision in May 2012. (Tr. 25-35.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review in June 2013 and she filed a timely Complaint in this Court in November 2014. (Tr. 14-17, 777-85.) The parties filed an Agreed Motion to Remand in February 2015. (Tr. 786-87.) The Court issued a judgment thereafter, reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding plaintiff's case to the Commissioner for rehearing and reconsideration. (Tr. 789-91.)

         On remand, ALJ Stephen Hanekamp conducted an evidentiary hearing in May 2016. (Tr. 722-45.) ALJ Hanekamp issued a partially favorable decision in September 2016; he found plaintiff was disabled from September 6, 2009 through June 20, 2011. However, the ALJ opined medical improvement occurred as of June 21, 2011 and plaintiff was not under a disability since that date. (Tr. 694-712.) The Appeals Council reviewed the ALJ's decision and found no reason to assume jurisdiction. (Tr. 669-72.) The ALJ's decision therefore became the final agency decision. Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely Complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1.)

         Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to identify and resolve conflicts between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT); erred in relying on vocational expert (VE) testimony that lacked a reliable basis; erroneously relied on a VE opinion regarding unreliable data related to job incidence; and failed to elicit evidence of availability of jobs existing in plaintiff's geographic region of the country.

         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 Hanekamp found plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2014 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 6, 2009: the alleged onset date. (Tr. 699.) From September 6, 2009 through June 20, 2011, plaintiff had severe impairments of DDD, coronary artery disease, mood disorder, and panic disorder, which rendered her disabled. (Tr. 699, 705.) The ALJ opined plaintiff had the same severe impairments after June 20, 2011 with the addition of carpal tunnel syndrome in her right upper extremity. (Tr. 705.) Medical improvement occurred as of June 21, 2011 following plaintiff's spinal surgery. (Tr. 706-07.) Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with several exceptions. Relevant here, the ALJ found plaintiff could only frequently handle and finger with the dominant right upper extremity, must avoid exposure to pulmonary irritants, and must avoid exposure to temperatures twenty degrees and below, and ninety-five degrees and above, for over thirty minutes.[3] The ALJ determined jobs existed in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 707-11.) In sum, the ALJ determined plaintiff was disabled from September 6, 2009 through June 20, 2011 but not thereafter. (Tr. 712.)

         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 plaintiff's arguments.

         1. Agency Forms

         In the most recent agency forms, dated November 2014 and May 2015, plaintiff indicated that heart conditions, a bad back, degenerative disc disease (DDD), a pinched nerve in her back, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), depression, anxiety, a hernia, and chronic ...

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