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Carlson v. Berryhill

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

May 15, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations for the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Susan E. Cox Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Christine Carlson (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her disability benefits under the Social Security Act. For the reasons below, the Court remands this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order. Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [dkt. 12] is granted.

         I. Background

         a. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on December 7, 2012.[1] [Administrative Record (“R”) 264-65.] Plaintiff claimed an alleged onset date of disability as of June 1, 2011. [R 264.] Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and again at the reconsideration stage, after which Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held August 24, 2015 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Patricia Wirkowski Supergan [R 37-80.] Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and both a Medical Expert and a Vocational Expert testified during the hearing. Id. On September 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits. [R 16-28.] On January 23, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's appeal, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [R 1-6.] Plaintiff filed the instant action on March 29, 2017. [dkt 1.]

         b. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff was born May 4, 1964, and was 47 years old on her alleged disability onset date. [R 27.] Plaintiff suffers from both mental and physical limitations. Plaintiff suffers from severe degenerative joint disease in both knees, obesity, and bipolar disorder. [R 18.] Plaintiff has also received treatment for hypertension and sporadic sinus headaches. Id. In April 2014, about a year and a half after her date last insured, Plaintiff underwent bilateral knee replacement. [R 1012-13.]

         c. The ALJ's Decision

         On September 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits. [R 16-28.] At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of June 1, 2011 through her date last insured (“DLI”) of December 31, 2012. [R 18.] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of obesity, bipolar disorder, and degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees. [Id.] The ALJ found Plaintiff's hypertension and headaches to be nonsevere impairments. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. [R 18-20.]

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2]to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), except she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she can occasionally balance and stoop, but never kneel, crouch and crawl; she can tolerate no exposure to and [not] work around hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights; she can perform simple routine tasks requiring no more than short simple instructions and simple work related decision making with few work place changes. [R 21.] In making this RFC determination, the ALJ analyzed Plaintiff's medical record and discussed the weight she gave the opinions therein. [R 21-26.]

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as an accounting clerk or customer service representative because the exertional and non- exertional limitations exceed Plaintiff's sedentary RFC. [R 26.] At step five, the ALJ found there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. Specifically, the ALJ relied upon Vocational Expert testimony that Plaintiff could perform the occupations of address clerk, account clerk, or bench sorter. [R 27.] Because of this determination, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. [R 28.]

         II. Social Security Regulations and Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act requires all applicants to prove they are disabled as of their date last insured to be eligible for disability insurance benefits. ALJs are required to follow a sequential five-step test to assess whether a claimant is legally disabled. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; and (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals one considered conclusively disabling such that the claimant is impeded from performing basic work-related activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). If the impairment(s) does meet or equal this standard, the inquiry is over and the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If not, the evaluation continues and the ALJ must determine (4) whether the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work. Cannon v. Harris, 651 F.2d 513, 517 (7th Cir. 1981). If not, the ALJ must (5) consider the claimant's age, education, and prior work experience and evaluate whether she is able to engage in another type of work existing in a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Id. At the fourth and fifth steps of the inquiry, the ALJ is required to evaluate the claimant's RFC in calculating which work-related activities she is capable of performing given her limitations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004). In the final step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show there are significant jobs available that the claimant is able to perform. Smith v. Schweiker, 735 F.2d 267, 270 (7th Cir. 1984).

         In disability insurance benefits cases, a court's scope of review is limited to deciding whether the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is based upon substantial evidence and the proper legal criteria. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence exists when a “reasonable mind might accept [the evidence] as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 887 (7th Cir. 2001). While reviewing a commissioner's decision, the Court may not “reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d at 1001. Although the Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, the ALJ must nevertheless “build an accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and his conclusion. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 941 (7th Cir. 2002) (internal citation omitted). The Court ...

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