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Motsinger v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

April 18, 2018




         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff George W. Motsinger, Jr., represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Child Disability Benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Mr. Motsinger applied for benefits in August 2013 alleging disability beginning on August 28, 1995[1]. After holding an evidentiary hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stuart T. Janney denied the application on April 29, 2016. (Tr. 10-27.) The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision subject to judicial review. (Tr. 1.) Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

         1. Whether the ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment is supported by substantial evidence where he failed to account for all of Motsinger's impairments and attendant limitations and based the assessment on his own lay impression of the medical evidence.

         2. Whether the ALJ improperly evaluated Motsinger's subjective symptom allegations where the ALJ's rationale was illogical, unexplained, and legally insufficient.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         Plaintiff applied for Child Disability Benefits on the earnings record of his deceased mother. As is relevant to plaintiff, a child of an insured person who has died is eligible for benefits if he is age eighteen or older and has a disability that began before he turned twenty-two. 20 C.F.R. § 404.350(a).

         To qualify for Child Disability Benefits or SSI 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).[2] 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 Decision of the ALJ

         ALJ Janney followed the five-step analytical framework described above. Plaintiff had never worked. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of amblyopia (“lazy eye”), myopia, and astigmatism with decreased visual acuity; level 3 obesity; history of ear traumas and infections; learning disorder and borderline intellectual functioning; and obstructive sleep apnea. At this step, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had moderate difficulties in ability to maintain concentration, persistence or pace.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Motsinger had the RFC to perform work at the sedentary exertional level with some physical and mental limitations. The mental limitations were that plaintiff was limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out short, simple instructions at a consistent pace, but not complex instructions.

         Based upon the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled because he was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         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 the points raised ...

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