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Daniel E. T. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

July 24, 2019

DANIEL E. T., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DONALD G. WILKERSON U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

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

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for SSI in June 2015, alleging a disability onset date of October 1, 2014. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ issued a partially favorable decision on February 28, 2018. (Tr. 16-29). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision. (Tr. 1). Plaintiff exhausted administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. The ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinions.
2. The ALJ failed to consider plaintiff's use of a cane and obesity.
3. The ALJ's analysis of plaintiff's subjective complaints was erroneous.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[3] Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if he 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. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of lumbar spondylosis, chronic moderate lung obstruction, hypertension, obesity, and chronic deformity of T12, which did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         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 climbing of ladders, ropes, scaffolding, ramps, and stairs; (2) occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; and (3) no concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants.

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do his past relevant work. However, he was not disabled through September 2, 2017, because he was able to do other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Plaintiff turned 55 on September 3, 2017 and was deemed disabled as of that date under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”) 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, Table 2.

         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 said he was disabled because of back problems and lung issues. He was 5' 9” tall and weighed 205 pounds. He said he stopped working on March 6, 2015, because he was slowing down due to back pain and his employer said he was too slow for the job. He had past employment as a ...


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