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Rebecca H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

July 24, 2019

REBECCA H., [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 benefits in April 2015, alleging disability beginning on January 29, 2015, the day after a prior application had been denied. She later amended the onset date to September 1, 2015. (Tr. 10, 196). After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application on March 20, 2018. (Tr. 10-22). The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1). Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. Whether the ALJ erred by failing to account for moderate deficits of concentration, persistence, or pace in the residual functional capacity finding;
2. Whether the ALJ erred by cherry-picking evidence and equating minimal activity with a capacity to perform substantial gainful activity.

         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 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. She determined that plaintiff had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date. She was insured for DIB through December 31, 2015. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, anxiety disorder, affective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and personality disorder, which did not meet or equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to do light work, with physical and mental limitations. Only the mental limitations are in issue here. The ALJ found that plaintiff was limited to simple repetitive tasks and applying simple information, occasional simple decision-making, occasional changes in routine, and occasional superficial contact with co-workers and supervisors performing tasks not requiring direct interaction with the general public.

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do her past relevant work as a Unit Clerk (medical secretary), receptionist, merchandise displayer, retail manager, or bartender. 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. In view of plaintiff's arguments, the Court will omit a discussion of plaintiff's physical impairments.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born in 1977 and was 38 years old on the alleged date of onset. (Tr. 328). She alleged disability due to a brain injury, bad back, depression, PTSD, and panic disorder. (Tr. 317). She last worked from December 2007 through January 2011 as a medical secretary. (Tr. 318).

         In July 2015, plaintiff reported that she was unable to retain new information and could no longer concentrate on one thing. She had panic attacks when stressed and was afraid to go outside most of the time. (Tr. 348). She had to be ...

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