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Jones v. Berryhill

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

July 19, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Ronald A. Guzmán United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, Jeanette Jones, filed this action for judicial review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for benefits. For the reasons explained below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands this case for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits in April 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 23, 2012. Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested a hearing. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing on October 29, 2015 and heard the testimony of plaintiff and a vocational expert. (R. 34-79, Tr.) On November 24, 2015, the ALJ denied plaintiff's applications. (R. 17-33.) The Appeals Council denied review on January 23, 2017 (R. 1-3), leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner, reviewable by this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 526 (7th Cir. 2017).


         The reviewing court may enter a judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing” the final decision of the Commissioner, “with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's task is “limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence”; it may not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004); see also Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010) (“Our review is limited to the reasons articulated by the ALJ in h[is] decision.”). Evidence is considered “substantial” if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support the conclusion. Young, 362 F.3d at 1001. In rendering a decision, the ALJ “must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, but he need not provide a complete written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence.” Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 362 (7th Cir. 2013). Although the Court's standard of review is deferential, it is “not entirely uncritical, ” and the case must be remanded where the decision “lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

         The Social Security regulations prescribe a five-part sequential test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The Commissioner must consider whether: (1) the claimant has performed any substantial gainful activity during the period for which she claims disability; (2) if not, whether she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) if so, whether her impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the regulations; (4) if not, whether she has the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether she can perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.; Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 844 n.1 (7th Cir. 2007). “The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000).

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 22.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the severe impairments of hearing loss and arthritis. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 23.) At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1567(c) and [§] 416.967(c) except she should avoid concentrated exposure to excessive noise of more than moderate intensity and is limited to occupations that do not require fine hearing capability.” (Id.) At the final step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a shipping and receiving clerk, housekeeping cleaner, and laundry worker, and thus is not disabled. (R. 28.)

         On appeal, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated plaintiff's RFC by failing to account for all evidence of limitations resulting from her hearing loss, failing to provide an evidentiary basis for the two specific hearing limitations in the RFC, and failing to provide an evidentiary basis for the conclusion that plaintiff can perform medium work; and (2) the ALJ improperly assessed the credibility of plaintiff's statements regarding the extent of her hearing loss and her inability to pay for hearing aids.

         As to plaintiff's hearing, the ALJ's RFC assessment states as follows in relevant part:

At the hearing, [plaintiff] testified that she cannot hear in her left ear and has some difficulty hearing with her right ear. She testified that with a soft-spoken person, she must look directly at the person to understand that person. [Plaintiff] testified that she cannot afford a hearing aid and that she could not find a hearing care provider that would accept her insurance, County Care. . . .
After careful consideration of the evidence, I find that [plaintiff's] medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [plaintiff's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.
In terms of [plaintiff's] alleged symptoms and limitations, the medical evidence does not support any greater limitation to [plaintiff's] work-related abilities than those in the residual functional capacity set forth herein. Regarding [plaintiff's] hearing loss and associated alleged limitations, the medical records contain testing results showing hearing loss. However, the most recent test results were found to be unreliable by the audiologist who conducted the testing. In addition, [plaintiff's] treatment providers do not document observed hearing difficulties.
At a consultative examination in May 2013, [plaintiff] reported hearing loss in the left ear with mild difficulty hearing people during a conversation and while watching television. She denied wearing hearing aids, and she denied tinnitus. Upon examination, she was able to understand ...

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