United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
JENNIFER L. SUGG, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
PHIL GILBERT, DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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. §
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
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).
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).
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. 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.
Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary
record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The
following summary of the record is directed to
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 ...