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Dwight L.W. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

July 25, 2019

DWIGHT L. W., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER of SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DONALD G. WILKERSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff, represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB in March 2015, alleging disability as of March 24, 2014. Plaintiff was last insured on March 31, 2014. (Tr. 220). After holding an evidentiary hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied the application on May 31, 2018. (Tr. 13-20). 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 points:

1. The ALJ erred in failing to identify and reconcile apparent conflicts between the vocational expert's (VE) testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).
2. The ALJ erred in failing to identify the evidentiary basis of her assessment of plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC).

         Applicable Legal Standards

         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. § 416.920(a)(4).

         An affirmative answer at either step 3 or step 5 leads to a finding that the plaintiff is disabled. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001). A negative answer at any step, other than at step 3, precludes a finding of disability. Ibid. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof at steps 1-4. Ibid. 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. Ibid.

         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 worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of small broad-based intervertebral disc bulge L5-S1; mild multilevel degenerative disc disease of the mid-thoracic spine; ...


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