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Trisha D. R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 11, 2019

TRISHA D. R., [1] Plaintiff,



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

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI in September 2014, alleging a disability onset date of July 11, 2013. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application on August 11, 2017. (Tr. 32-47). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1). Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court.

         Issue Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

1. The ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff's epilepsy and narcolepsy with cataplectic spells did not meet the requirements of Listings 11.02A and 11.02B.
2. The ALJ erred in accepting the state agency reviewers' opinions and in rejecting the opinion of Dr. Alam, her treating neurologist.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[3] Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if she has an “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a).

         To determine whether a plaintiff is disabled, the ALJ considers the following five questions in order: (1) Is the plaintiff presently unemployed? (2) Does the plaintiff have a severe impairment? (3) Does the impairment meet or medically equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations? (4) Is the plaintiff unable to perform her former occupation? and (5) Is the plaintiff unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         An affirmative answer at either step 3 or step 5 leads to a finding that the plaintiff is disabled. A negative answer at any step, other than at step 3, precludes a finding of disability. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof at steps 1-4. Once the plaintiff shows an inability to perform past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show the plaintiff's ability to engage in other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001).

         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. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). 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.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 2019 WL 1428885, at *3 ( S.Ct. Apr. 1, 2019) (internal citations omitted).

         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. Burmester v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 507, 510 (7th Cir. 2019). 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 Decision of the ALJ

         The ALJ followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had not worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. She was insured for DIB through December 31, 2016.[4] The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, epilepsy/catalepsy, polycystic ovarian syndrome, depression, and anxiety disorder. The ALJ concluded that these impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to do work at all exertional levels, with nonexertional physical limitations consisting of (1) no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; (3) no operation of motor vehicles; and (4) avoiding exposure to unprotected heights and even moderate exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or open flames. He also assessed mental limitations which are not in issue.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff could not do her past relevant work as a janitor or switchboard operator. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled because she was able to do other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         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. As plaintiff's points relate only to her epilepsy/narcolepsy, the Court will focus on that evidence.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born in 1977 and was 39 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 263). She said she was disabled because of narcolepsy, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and depression. She was 5'6” tall and weighed 228 pounds. She said she was let go from her last job in July 2013 because she took naps on the job. She had completed four years of college and had worked as a janitor and a switchboard operator. (Tr. 267-268).

         In December 2014, plaintiff reported that she could not get a job “because of the cataplexy and falling asleep.” (Tr. 277).[5]

         Plaintiff's mother and “adopted aunt” submitted function reports, but neither report described plaintiff's seizures. (Tr. 300-307, 335-343).

         2. Evidentiary Hearing

         Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the hearing in May 2017. (Tr. 55).

         Plaintiff lived with her husband. (Tr. 68). She said she did no household chores because she had no energy due to narcolepsy. (Tr. 72).

         Plaintiff testified that the primary reason that she could not work was that she had seizures. She had had seizures off and on since she was a child, but they had gotten worse over the last three years. She took Keppra, which helped, but she still had two or three seizures a month. She had been having two or three seizures a month for the past three years. She estimated that her seizures lasted six minutes. She felt tired and had a bad headache after a seizure. (Tr. 70-71).

         Plaintiff also had cataplexic attacks as a side effect of narcolepsy. She described these attacks as “my emotion[s] or my anxiety gets up [and] I [lose][6] all muscle control and will fall, can't keep my eyes open, can't keep by head up, can't speak, and it can last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.” She was conscious during these attacks. (Tr. 76-77).

         Dr. Alam completed a medical source statement for her. She then went back to him and asked him to reconsider his answer to question number 14 because it “contradicted” his answers to other questions. He looked back at her statements in her medical ...

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