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Penny M. M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

August 1, 2018

Penny M. M.[1] Plaintiff,



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Penny M. M. (Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI in April 2014, alleging a disability onset date of November 30, 2013. (Tr. 199-200, 209-16). Her application was denied at the initial level and again upon reconsideration. (Tr. 95-96, 133-35). Plaintiff requested an evidentiary hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Janice E. Barnes-Williams held on July 6, 2016. (Tr. 38-70). The ALJ reached an unfavorable decision in October 2016. (Tr. 21-31). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely Complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1).

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to adequately evaluate how her headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and vertigo impacted the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI and/or DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[3] For these purposes, “disabled” 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 Barnes-Williams followed the five-step analytical framework set forth above. She determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 30, 2013. (Tr. 23). Plaintiff had severe impairments of obstructive sleep apnea, diastolic dysfunction, hypothyroidism, depression, anxiety, history of carpal tunnel syndrome, bilateral wrist arthritis, right hip arthritis, mild right shoulder arthritis and possible tendinosis, dizziness/vertigo, obesity, headaches, including migraine headaches, and a respiratory impairment. (Tr. 23). Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listing but she was limited to light work with additional limitations. (Tr. 25-26). Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work based on this RFC. (Tr. 29). However, she was able to perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 30). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 30).

         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

         Plaintiff completed her initial disability and function reports in April 2014. She stated that her conditions caused severe pain in her head, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lightheadedness, joint paint, joint stiffness, joint swelling, numbness, tingling, chronic fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating and focusing, painful and frequent urination, bloating, chronic groin pain, and chronic sinus pain. Plaintiff took medications for her ailments, which resulted in dry mouth, drowsiness, and an upset stomach. She could not sit, stand, walk, climb, lift, carry, bend, kneel, squat, or reach for extended periods. She had to frequently alternate positions and had difficulty using her hands. She had problems sleeping at night and took breaks and naps throughout the day. (Tr. 260). Plaintiff could sit for two hours before needing to get up. She rested for 10 to 15 minutes after any activity. (Tr. 270).

         On an average day, Plaintiff woke up around 5:30 a.m. to let her dogs outside then went back to bed until 11:00 a.m., when she ate lunch. She watched television or read throughout the day, took a shower, ate dinner, and went to bed around 9:00 p.m. (Tr. 261). She had to sit down to get dressed to avoid standing, wore slip-on shoes to avoid bending, avoided clothing with buttons, snaps, and zippers, and wore pajamas unless she had to go somewhere because she lacked motivation. Plaintiff took short showers because she could not stand for long periods. She avoided bending and had problems holding onto the soap and ...

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