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Donna R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 28, 2019

DONNA 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 Disabled Widow's Benefits (DWB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and DWB in September 2014, alleging a disability onset date of July 1, 2013. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application on October 31, 2017.[3] (Tr. 15-27). 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 issue:

The ALJ's analysis of plaintiff's subjective complaints about her hands was erroneous because she relied on a misinterpretation of imaging studies and ignored probative evidence.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB or DWB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[4] 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. She determined that plaintiff had worked part-time but had not worked continuously at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Plaintiff was insured for DIB through December 31, 2020. To be eligible for DWB, she had to have been disabled before the last day of the “prescribed period;” that date was November 30, 2009.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome, and tachycardia, which did not meet or equal a listed impairment. She also found that plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome was not a severe impairment but noted that any limitations it might cause had been considered in conjunction with the assessment of osteoarthritis of her hands.

         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) occasional exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery; (2) no overhead reaching; and (3) only frequent, i.e., up to 2/3 of the day, handling and fingering.

         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 ...

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