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McEwen v. Berryhill

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

May 1, 2018

EUGENE J. MCEWEN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, [1] Defendant.


          Mary M. Rowland Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Eugene J. McEwen filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1381 et. seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and filed cross motions for summary judgement. For the reasons stated below, the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on January 19, 2012, alleging disability beginning September 1, 1993. (R. at 103). The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for hearing. (Id. at 103-04, 109, 112-115). On December 16, 2014, Plaintiff appeared, with his representative, before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Patrick Nagle, who ordered Plaintiff to obtain a psychological consultative examination and testing. (Id. at 100, 103, 560-70). After the consultative examination, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a supplemental hearing before ALJ Carla Suffi on August 6, 2015. (Id. at 40-102). The ALJ also heard testimony from Plaintiff's sister, Vera McEwen, and Edward Pagella, an impartial vocational expert (VE). (Id.).

         The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on August 25, 2015. (R. at 13-33). Applying the five-step sequence for assessing disability, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a), the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of January 19, 2012. (Id. at 15). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, severe degenerative joint disease of the right knee, moderate degenerative joint disease at the right ankle, asthma, a history of a learning disorder, depression, and alcohol and marijuana abuse. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 16-19).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), but with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant would be limited to occasional kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing, and he should never work around hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery. The claimant should never work in environments with concentrated amounts of pulmonary irritants, such as dusts, odors, fumes, and gases. The Claimant would be capable of performing simple, routine tasks that can be learned on a short demonstration. He would be unable to plan work independently, but would be able to follow simple directions and carry out simple tasks. He would be unable to perform fast production pace work, but could perform goal oriented work. The claimant would be unable to tolerate work with the public due to his impaired cognition.

(R. at 19). The ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 32). Based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the VE's testimony that Plaintiff is capable of performing work as an assembler, packer and sorter, the ALJ determined at step five that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Id. at 32-33). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under disability, as defined by the Act, from the alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 33).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 6, 2017. (Id. at 1-6). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).


         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the Act. In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. The Court's task is “limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial “if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004); see Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014) (“We will uphold the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, that is, such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance.” Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). “In addition to relying on substantial evidence, the ALJ must also explain his 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).

         Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it “must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision.” Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). “This deferential standard of review is weighted in favor of upholding the ALJ's decision, but it does not mean that we scour the record for supportive evidence or rack our brains for reasons to uphold the ALJ's decision. Rather, the ALJ must identify the relevant evidence and build a ‘logical bridge' between that evidence and the ultimate determination.” Moon v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 718, 721 (7th Cir. 2014). Where the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).


         Plaintiff makes a number of arguments challenging the ALJ's decision. After reviewing the record and the parties' briefs, the Court is persuaded by Plaintiff's argument that the RFC assessment and corresponding VE hypothetical did not appropriately ...

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