United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
Delaina N. C. Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
CLIFFORD J. PROUD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Delaina N.
C. (Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the final agency
decision denying her application for Disability Insurance
Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.
applied for DIB on August 12, 2013, alleging a disability
onset date of June 3, 2013. (Tr. 181-87). Her application was
denied at the initial level and again upon reconsideration.
(Tr. 75, 89). Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing,
which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Kevin R. Martin
conducted in May 2016. (Tr. 37-74). ALJ Martin reached an
unfavorable decision on August 17, 2016. (Tr. 15-36). The
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review,
rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision.
(Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies
and filed a timely Complaint with this Court. (Doc. 1).
Raised by Plaintiff
argues the ALJ erred in assessing the medical opinions of
record and her allegations of the severity of her symptoms.
She also asserts the ALJ's residual functional capacity
assessment was not supported by substantial evidence.
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. §
“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.
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
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
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.
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.”).
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).
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
applied the five-step analytical framework set forth above.
He determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements
through December 31, 2018 and had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since June 7, 2013. (Tr. 20). Plaintiff had
severe impairments of degenerative disc disease status post
surgeries, fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, anxiety, and
depression. (Tr. 21). She had the RFC to perform sedentary
work with several additional limitations, which precluded her
from performing any past relevant work. (Tr. 24, 29).
However, there were other jobs in the national economy
Plaintiff could perform, so she was not disabled. (Tr.
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.
agency forms, Plaintiff alleged that spinal stenosis,
degenerative disc disease, a lumbar fusion, failed back
surgery syndrome, anxiety, depression, a leg length
discrepancy, insomnia, GERD, and severe back pain limited her
ability to work. (Tr. 202).
completed a function report in March 2014 and stated she was
unable to stand for more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time
without severe pain in her back and right leg. She could not
sit in a chair for more than 30 minutes without pain.
Plaintiff could not bend, twist, stoop, squat, or kneel
excessively. She could not lift more than 20 pounds.
Plaintiff could walk for about 20 to 30 minutes and could
sometimes tolerate walking for up to an hour. (Tr. 216, 221).
On an average day, Plaintiff woke up, made her bed, let her
dogs outside, sat on the couch and drank coffee, showered,
and then sat in a chair to finish getting ready. Showering
caused her pain. After getting ready, she drove herself to
physical therapy for an hour. (Tr. 217). She sometimes ran
errands after physical therapy if she was not in pain. She
usually had to lie down for an hour to rest her back after
getting home. After resting, Plaintiff emptied the dishwasher
and picked up around the house. She helped fix supper and fed
her dogs. (Tr. 223).
was able to feed and water her dogs and let them outside. Her
spouse shared these responsibilities with her. She could also
prepare complete meals with several courses on a daily basis.
She had to sit on a stool to do most of her cooking and her
husband helped. Plaintiff did laundry, washed dishes, went
grocery shopping, and dusted on a weekly basis. Plaintiff
needed help with groceries and dusting on occasion.
Sometimes, Plaintiff was in too much pain to fall asleep. She
could not drive more than 30 miles due to pain.
Plaintiff's hobbies included reading, crafting,
traveling, and antiquing. She could “do all of them
well.” However, she could not craft as much as she used
to because she could not sit for long periods. Her ability to
travel and antique was also limited because she could not
ride in a car or walk for long periods. (Tr. 217-20).
husband, Daniel, completed a third party function report,
which corroborated Plaintiff's alleged limitations. He
also stated Plaintiff and he were no longer able to have date
nights because of Plaintiff's pain. Overall, they spent
less time as a family because of her conditions. (Tr.
completed an additional function report in May 2014. She
stated she had to have a chair in her shower because she
could not wash her hair or body, or shave without extreme
pain. She also used a chair to cook, wash dishes, and get
ready because she could not stand long enough to complete
these activities without pain. Her husband helped her grocery
shop because she could not carry or load bags. Her husband
also drove her anywhere that was more than 10 minutes away.
Plaintiff's daily chores were “very light duty with
several breaks every 15-20 minutes” where she had to
lay flat for 10-15 minutes at a time. (Tr. 253, 261).
Evan Belfer was Plaintiff's primary care physician from
February 23, 2009 until March 30, 2016. The record reflects
that Plaintiff saw Dr. Belfer on over 20 occasions from March
2012 to May 2016. Dr. Belfer's notes are handwritten and
often illegible. However, it appears Plaintiff frequently
complained of back and muscle pain, difficulty sleeping, and
depression. Dr. Belfer assessed Plaintiff with lower back
pain, insomnia, hypothyroidism, myalgia, and depression. He
prescribed a variety of medications at different points,
including Wellbutrin, Topiramate, Temazepam, Cyclobenzaprine,
Ativan, Cymbalta, Depakote, and Flexeril. (Tr. 603-13,
February 15, 2013, Plaintiff began seeing Dr. Joel Ray, a
neurosurgeon, for back and leg pain. At the initial
consultation, she stated she was able to get into positions
that offered almost complete relief, but those positions were
not functional with bending her knees, bending her back to
open up the spine, or lying down. As soon as she stood for
any period, she had excruciating leg pain and increased back
pain. Dr. Ray noted that Plaintiff continued to work and was
“apparently tolerating that.” She tolerated her
work environment but felt her life was very dysfunctional due
to her pain. On physical examination, Plaintiff demonstrated
leg and back pain while standing. A straight leg raise was
positive on the right at about 30 degrees, with a mild
increase in her right leg pain. Resistive motor testing was
5/5 and equal and there was some slight decrease to external
rotation of the right foot and minimal decrease of the great
toe. Her reflexes were � and equal bilaterally with a
slightly increased ankle jerk on the right. Dr. Ray referred
Plaintiff for electrical studies and a pain management
consultation and scheduled MRIs and CAT scans. He also
recommended an aquatics therapy program and told her to
consider a dorsal column stimulator (DCS) and a right L5-S1
transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF). (Tr. 759-62).