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Craig S. A. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 31, 2018

CRAIG S. A., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER of SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for benefits in December 2013 alleging disability beginning on May 24, 2013. After holding an evidentiary hearing, Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jason R. Yoder denied the application in a written decision dated February 10, 2016. (Tr. 27-40.) The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (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. The ALJ erroneously found that Plaintiff's right knee arthroscopy in July 2013 was unrelated to his total knee arthroplasty in the same knee on November 14, 2014. If he had properly considered the evidence, he should have found that Plaintiff's injury to his right knee in May 2013 caused one continuous period of disability from May 2013 through at least October 2015.
2. The ALJ erred in the weight he afforded to the opinion of Plaintiff's primary care physician, Dr. Walls, and to the opinions of the reviewing doctors.

         Applicable 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 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 Yoder followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that Plaintiff had not worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. He was insured for DIB through December 31, 2018. He found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of right knee degenerative joint disease, mild right hip osteoarthritis, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes, sleep apnea, obesity, and compression fracture at ¶ 1, which did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level, limited to no operation of foot controls or push/pull with the right lower extremity; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; occasional climbing of ramps or stairs; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling; no concentrated exposure to workplace hazards; and only frequent use of the upper extremities for pushing, pulling, operating hand controls, handling, fine fingering, and feeling.

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled because he was able to do his past relevant work as a bottle-house quality control technician (beer bottler).

         The ...


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