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Tina L.P. v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

July 23, 2018

Tina L.P.[1] Plaintiff,



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

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on November 4, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of July 30, 2013. (Tr. 162-63). Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial level and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 81, 99). Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, (Tr. 159), which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stephen Hanekamp conducted on May 25, 2016, (Tr. 41-65). The ALJ reached an unfavorable determination on October 3, 2016. (Tr. 8-30). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-7). Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timey complaint with this Court. (Doc. 1).

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erroneously determined what impairments were “severe” and improperly considered the evidence in determining her residual functional capacity.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled, which means 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).

         A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). “Substantial gainful activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities, and that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.

         Social Security regulations set forth a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained this process as follows:

The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement. The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation continues. The fourth step assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not disabled. The fifth step assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work. If the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled.

Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-569 (7th Cir. 2011).

         Stated another way, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is serious; (3) whether the impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged to be conclusively disabling; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, given his or her age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-513 (7th Cir. 2009); Schroeter v. Sullivan, 977 F.2d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 1992).

         If the answer at steps one and two is “yes, ” the claimant will automatically be found disabled if he or she suffers from a listed impairment, determined at step three. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment at step three, and cannot perform his or her past work (step four), the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform some other job. Rhoderick v. Heckler, 737 F.2d 714, 715 (7th Cir. 1984). See also Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001) (Under the five-step evaluation, an “affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. . . . If a claimant reaches step 5, the burden shifts to the ALJ to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work in the national economy.”).

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to ensure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. It is important to recognize that the scope of review is limited. “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, this Court must determine not whether plaintiff was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, but whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether any errors of law were made. See Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995)). This Court uses the Supreme Court's definition of substantial evidence, i.e., “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         In reviewing for “substantial evidence, ” the entire administrative record is taken into consideration, but this Court 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). However, while judicial review is deferential, it is not abject; this Court does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. See Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010), and cases cited therein.

         The ALJ's Decision

         ALJ Hanekamp found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2019 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 30, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 13). Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, meniscal tear of the left knee, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and personality disorder. (Tr. 14). The ALJ opined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with several additional limitations. (Tr. 17). Plaintiff's RFC precluded her from performing past relevant work, buts she was not disabled because other jobs existed that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 23-24).

         The Evidentiary Record

         The Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the record is directed to the points raised by Plaintiff.

         1. Agency Forms

         In her agency forms, Plaintiff indicated that the following conditions limited her ability to work: fibromyalgia; chronic depression; insomnia; a thyroid condition; head, back, and neck injuries; irritable bowel syndrome; high blood pressure; and anxiety. (Tr. 188). She experienced constant pain “from head to toe” and took prescription pain medications, including, Roxicodone, Tramadol, and Diclofenac. The medications helped her cope with the pain but did not completely relieve her symptoms. They also made her drowsy and dizzy. Plaintiff alleged she could not sit or stand very long and felt pain with stretching, bending, and lifting. Consequentially, she had difficulty cooking, cleaning, shopping, sleeping, and taking care of personal needs. She could make microwavable meals and sandwiches and wash laundry and dishes. Her hobbies and social activities included reading, watching television, browsing Facebook, talking with friends, and playing cards. Plaintiff also struggled with mental illness and had suicidal tendencies. She was always irritable and tired. She handled stress “OK” and was “good” at handling changes in routines. (Tr. 204, 217-24, 241).

         2. Evidentiary Hearing

         ALJ Hanekamp conducted an evidentiary hearing in May 2016. Plaintiff testified that she engaged in self-harm such as repeatedly punching herself. She most recently harmed herself two weeks before the hearing. (Tr. 49). She estimated she inflicted injury on herself about 15 or 20 times. She pounded her head on the wall, hit herself in the head with a piece of metal, burned herself, or cut herself. She has also run in front of a bus a couple of times and pulled her hair out. (Tr. 51).

         Plaintiff's mental impairments affected her on a daily basis. She had problems focusing, got angry, and thought about harming herself and others. She previously committed herself to the hospital when she had harmful thoughts. About four times each month she isolated herself and did not get out of bed. (Tr. 52). Plaintiff did not notice an improvement ...

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