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Welch v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 5, 2018

JILL H. WELCH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         This action was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Jill Welch's (“Plaintiff”) claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, [Doc. No. 11], is granted and the Commissioner's cross-motion is denied.


         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on April 15, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of February 27, 2013 due to severe back pain, arthritis, depression, severe headaches, severe dizziness, left epic condolitis, and anxiety. (R. 150, 194.) Her application was denied initially on August 1, 2013 and upon reconsideration on March 5, 2014. (R. 89-92, 97.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on March 19, 2014. (R. 100-101.) The hearing was held on November 2, 2015. (R. 39-66.) Plaintiff appeared at the hearing represented by an attorney and offered testimony. (Id.) A vocational expert also appeared and offered testimony. (Id.) On December 14, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 20-31.) The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied review on April 4, 2016, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005); Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 332 (7th Cir. 1994); (R. 1-6.)

         II. The ALJ Decision

         The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 27, 2013, her alleged onset date. (R. 22.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, and degenerative joint disease of the left elbow. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal a Listing. (R. 25.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at the sedentary level, but can occasionally balance and stoop, never climb stairs, ramps, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no kneeling, crouching, or crawling; no work at unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; use of a walker for ambulating, but not walking away from the workstation; and frequent fingering on the non-dominant left hand. (R. 26.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a collector and medical clerk because that work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by her RFC. (R. 30.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 31.)


         I. The ALJ Legal Standard

         Under the Act, a person is disabled if she has an “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ considers the following five questions in order: (1) Is the claimant presently unemployed? (2) Does the claimant have a severe impairment? (3) Does the impairment meet or medically equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations? (4) Is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation? and (5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).

         An affirmative answer at either step 3 or step 5 leads to a finding that the claimant is disabled. Young v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 957 F.2d 386, 389 (7th Cir. 1992). A negative answer at any step, other than at step 3, precludes a finding of disability. Id. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps 1- 4. Id. Once the claimant shows an inability to perform past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant's ability to engage in other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.

         II. Judicial Review

         Section 405(g) provides in relevant part that “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence or based upon legal error. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). This Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts, reweighing evidence, or resolving conflicts in evidence. Skinner, 478 F.3d at 841; see also Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008) (holding that the ALJ's decision must be affirmed even if “reasonable minds could differ” as long as “the decision is adequately supported”) (citation omitted).

         The ALJ is not required to address “every piece of evidence or testimony in the record, [but] the ALJ's analysis must provide some glimpse into the reasoning behind her decision to deny benefits.” Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 889 (7th Cir. 2001). In cases where the ALJ denies benefits to a claimant, “he must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. The ALJ must at least minimally articulate the “analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review.” Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005); Murphy v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 630, 634 (7th Cir. 2007) (“An ALJ has a duty to fully ...

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