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Kenneth W. K. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 21, 2018

KENNETH W. K., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Kenneth W. K., represented by counsel, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability benefits in January 2016, alleging disability beginning on November 14, 2015. After holding an evidentiary hearing, ALJ Raymond L. Souza denied the application on February 17, 2017. (Tr. 15-28.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final agency decision subject to judicial review. (Tr. 1.) Plaintiff has exhausted administrative remedies and has filed a timely complaint in this Court.

         Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff makes the following arguments:

1. The ALJ's finding that plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity in the fourth quarter of 2015 was erroneous.
2. The ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinions of treating psychiatrist Jeffrey Chalfant, counselor Justine Livesay, and state agency reviewer David Biscardi.
3. The ALJ did not properly assess the reliability of his statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms.

         Legal Standards

         To qualify for 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). 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 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 Souza followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity in the fourth quarter of 2015, but not thereafter, and he is insured for DIB through December 31, 2020.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, and that these impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         ALJ Souza concluded that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform work at the medium exertional level with the following limitations:

[H]e should avoid using hazardous machinery. He is also able to remember, understand, and carry out simple and routine instructions and tasks consistent with SVP levels 1 and 2 type jobs with only occasional decision making required and occasional changes in the work setting. There should also be no strict production quotas with emphasis on a per shift rather than per hour basis. Additionally the ...

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