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Autman v. Berryhill

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

May 15, 2018

BRENDA M. AUTMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Operations of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.


          Maria Valdez Magistrate Judge

         This action was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Brenda Autman's (“Plaintiff”) claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI 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. 16] is denied and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 28] is granted.


         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on July 18, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of March 18, 2005, due to bulging disc in neck, shoulder pain, headaches, asthma, nerve damage, and numbness in fingers and toes.[2] (R. 227-36, 254.) Her application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (R. 77- 130.) After filing a written request for a hearing, Plaintiff appeared on November 22, 2013 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who rescheduled the hearing so Plaintiff could obtain counsel. (R. 63-76.) A second hearing was held before the same ALJ on December 8, 2014, where Plaintiff appeared represented by counsel. (R. 31-62.) A vocational expert, Lisa Gagliano, was also present at the hearing and testified. (Id.) On March 27, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 9-30.) The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied review on April 29, 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. ALJ Decision

         On March 27, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable written determination finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 9-30.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 30, 2010, her amended alleged onset date and that she met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2010. (R. 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments of asthma, obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spines, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, affective disorder previously diagnosed as depressive disorder, not otherwise specified, major depressive disorder and adjustment disorder with mixed emotions. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medical equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926), (R. 15.)

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform work at a light exertional level, subject to several limitations.[3] At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. (R. 22.) At step five, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed including inspector/packer, bench assembler, and final inspector. (R. 22-23.) Because of this determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act. (R. 23- 24.)


         III. ALJ Standard

         Under the Act, a person is disabled if he 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 plaintiff is disabled, the ALJ considers the following five questions in order: (1) Is the plaintiff presently unemployed? (2) Does the plaintiff 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 plaintiff unable to perform his former occupation? and (5) Is the plaintiff unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).

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

         IV. 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, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. 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.”) (internal 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 plaintiff, “he must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [her] 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 exrel. 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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