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Colgan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

April 2, 2018

ELIZABETH W. COLGAN 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 Elizabeth W. Colgan 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 on September 1, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2005. (Tr. 156-60.) The agency denied her application at the initial level and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 90-92.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Karen Sayon conducted in October 2013. (Tr. 41-89.) ALJ Sayon issued an unfavorable decision thereafter. (Tr. 14-40.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-7.) Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely Complaint in this Court in March 2015. (Tr. 1222-32.) The Court reversed the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff's application for benefits and remanded the application to the Commissioner for rehearing and reconsideration of the evidence. (Tr. 1276-1307.)

         While plaintiff's appeal was pending before this Court, she filed a subsequent application for DIB dated June 18, 2015, along with an application for SSI dated October 27, 2015. The agency denied these applications at the initial level and again upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing. The Appeals Council found the subsequent claims duplicate and ordered the ALJ to consolidate all of plaintiff's claims for remand. (Tr. 1310.)

         In January 2017, pursuant to an order from this Court, ALJ Michael Scurry conducted an evidentiary hearing. (Tr. 1139-87.) ALJ Scurry issued a partially favorable decision in February 2017; he found plaintiff became disabled on June 6, 2016. (Tr. 1100-38.) Plaintiff did not seek review with the Appeals Council and the Appeals Council did not take jurisdiction. The ALJ's decision therefore became the final agency decision. Plaintiff filed a timely Complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1).

         Issued Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinions in the record; erroneously evaluated plaintiff's subjective complaints; and improperly based his decision on unreliable vocational expert (VE) testimony.

         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).[1] 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.

         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 that 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 Scurry found plaintiff met the insured status requirements through June 30, 2014, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 1, 2005. (Tr. 1107-08.) Plaintiff had severe impairments of fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Tr. 1108.)

         Prior to June 6, 2016, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with several exceptions. There were jobs in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed. (Tr. 1111, 1122.) On June 6, 2016, plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with more severe restrictions, which prevented her from performing any jobs that existed in the national economy. (Tr. 1120, 1123.) Thus, plaintiff was not disabled prior to June 6, 2016, but became disabled on June 6, 2016. (Tr. 1123.)

         The ...


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