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Tina R.C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 31, 2018

TINA R. C., [1] 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 Tina R. C., represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for benefits on March 2, 2015, alleging disability beginning in June 2012. However, plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to March 2, 2015. Plaintiff was denied benefits and requested an evidentiary hearing, which was held on January 28, 2016, by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Kevin R. Martin. ALJ Martin denied the application on March 31, 2016. (Tr. 18-30.) The Appeals Council denied review, and ALJ Martin's decision became the final agency decision subject to judicial review. (Tr. 1-6.) Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed with this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

1. The ALJ committed reversible error when he failed to account for plaintiff's moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace in assessing plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity (RFC).
2. Because the vocational expert (VE) was not asked to account for plaintiff's moderate limitations in maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace, the ALJ's decision at step five was not supported by substantial evidence.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for benefits, a claimant must be “disabled” pursuant to the Social Security Act. The Act defines “disabled” as “unable 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The physical or mental impairment must result from a medically demonstrable abnormality. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D). 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. § 416.972.

         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. § 416.920(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 Martin followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 2, 2015, the application and alleged onset date. He found plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease; osteoarthritis; COPD; fibromyalgia; obesity; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post release on the right; history of plantar fasciitis; major depressive disorder; personality disorder; and a history of substance abuse. However, the ALJ found that none of her impairments individually or in combination met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. The ALJ did find plaintiff had moderate deficiencies in social functioning and moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 26.)

         ALJ Martin found plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with physical and mental limitations. The ALJ found plaintiff's mental limitations are that “[s]he is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out short, simple instructions on a sustained basis in a work setting that does not require interaction with the general public in the work setting.” (Tr. 22.)

         Based on testimony from a VE, ALJ Martin found plaintiff was incapable of performing any past relevant work, but that other jobs existed in significant numbers within the national economy when considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC.

         The ...


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