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Angela J. P. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 19, 2019

ANGELA J. P., [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) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB in March 2014, alleging a disability onset date of May 13, 2011. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application on August 30, 2017. (Tr. 15-26). 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.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. The ALJ found fibromyalgia to be a severe impairment but did not provide any explanation of its role in the Residual Functional Capacity assessment.
2. The ALJ failed to adequately assess the medical opinions.
3. The ALJ's analysis of Plaintiff's subjective complaints is not based upon substantial evidence.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. 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, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (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 only through December 31, 2016. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, and obesity, which did not meet or equal a listed impairment. He also found that her mental impairments were not severe.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to do work at the light exertional level, with nonexertional physical limitations consisting of (1) no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; (2) only occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; and (3) occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling.

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do her past relevant work. However, she 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.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born in 1977 and was 39 years old on the date last insured. (Tr. 169). She said she was disabled because of bipolar disorder, severe anxiety and depression, and chronic pain in her knee and wrist. She was 5' 3” tall and weighed 170 pounds. She said she stopped working on May 13, 2011. She had past employment as a factory worker, a clerical worker, a laborer, and a restaurant server, among other jobs. (Tr. 173-174).

         In a function report submitted in July 2014, plaintiff said that she could not work because of severe anxiety with PTSD and panic attacks. She had chronic pain and her right arm went numb. She said she tried to cook and clean. It was hard for her to carry and lift because she had a bad knee, wrist, neck, and back. (Tr. 192-199).

         In a later report, she said that she left her last job “to get away from abuse after getting an O.P. [order of protection] on my ex.” (Tr. 230).

         2. ...

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