United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
Finnegan United States Magistrate Judge.
Shekinah R. seeks to overturn the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)
denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security
Act. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United
States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c),
and Plaintiff filed a memorandum explaining why the
Commissioner's decision should be reversed and the case
remanded. The Commissioner responded with a competing
memorandum in support of affirming the decision. After
careful review of the record, the Court agrees with Plaintiff
that the case must be remanded for further proceedings.
applied for DIB on December 13, 2012, alleging that she
became disabled on August 21, 2012 due to complications from
West Nile encephalitis, including: short-term memory loss;
weakness, tingling, and numbness in the left leg; fatigue;
stuttering; and lost train of thought. (R. 169, 202). Born in
1979, Plaintiff was at all relevant times a younger
individual (i.e., 18-49 years old). (R. 169). She lives with
her husband and three children, and completed one year of
college and obtained a cosmetology degree. (R. 750).
Plaintiff spent several years working as a medical coder and
billing specialist between February 2000 and September 2008,
at which point she took a position as a vocational college
instructor. (R. 203, 753, 755). She held that job until
August 21, 2012 when she was hospitalized with West Nile
encephalitis. (R. 300-426). Since the hospitalization,
Plaintiff occasionally performs hairdressing services for
friends and family but it does not rise to the level of
substantial gainful activity. (R. 751).
Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's
application at all levels of review. She appealed to the
district court and the parties agreed the case should be
remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (R.
853-55). On January 13, 2017, the Appeals Council vacated the
final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case to
administrative law judge David R. Bruce (the
“ALJ”) with instructions to “offer
[Plaintiff] the opportunity to submit additional evidence and
for a hearing, address the evidence submitted to the Appeals
Council, take any further action needed to complete the
administrative record, and issue a new decision.” (R.
869-70). The ALJ held a supplemental hearing on April 28,
2017 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented
by counsel, from Plaintiff's husband, and from vocational
expert Ronald Malik (the “VE”). (R. 742-95).
Following the hearing, the ALJ submitted written
interrogatories to Robert K. Heidrich, Psy.D., an independent
psychological expert. (R. 1325). Dr. Heidrich provided
written responses on June 29, 2017 and the ALJ made them part
of the record without objection. (R. 876-77, 1330-38).
September 19, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not
disabled from the August 21, 2012 alleged disability onset
date through February 17, 2015. During that period, Plaintiff
suffered from the severe impairments of cognitive disorder,
memory loss, depression, and anxiety, but they did not meet
or equal any listed impairment and she retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a
significant number of light jobs available in the national
economy. (R. 879-85). As of February 18, 2015, however,
Plaintiff's impairments, which now included a diagnosis
of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”),
became severe enough to medically equal Listing 12.06 and
rendered her disabled through the date of the decision. (R.
885-86). Plaintiff now appeals the portion of the ALJ's
decision denying her benefits.
support of her request for reversal or remand, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ: (1) erred in setting February 18, 2015
as the onset date of her disability; (2) improperly evaluated
the statements from Plaintiff and her husband regarding the
limiting effects of her symptoms; and (3) made a flawed RFC
determination that failed to adequately account for
Plaintiff's mental limitations and fatigue. For the
reasons discussed in this opinion, the Court finds that the
case must be remanded for further consideration of the onset
date of Plaintiff's disability.
Standard of Review
review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized
by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In reviewing this decision, the
Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether Plaintiff
is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security
regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001
(7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it “'displace the
ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence or
making credibility determinations.'” Castile v.
Astrue, 617 F.3d 923, 926 (7th Cir. 2010) (quoting
Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir.
2007)). The Court “will reverse an ALJ's
determination only when it is not supported by substantial
evidence, meaning ‘such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.'” Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d
351, 361-62 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting McKinzey v.
Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011)).
making its determination, the Court must “look to
whether the ALJ built an ‘accurate and logical
bridge' from the evidence to [his] conclusion that the
claimant is not disabled.” Simila v. Astrue,
573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Craft v.
Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008)). The ALJ need
not, however, “'provide a complete written
evaluation of every piece of testimony and
evidence.'” Pepper, 712 F.3d at 362
(quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th
Cir. 2005) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).
When the Commissioner's decision “'lacks
evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent
meaningful review,' a remand is required.”
Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698
(7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Steele v. Barnhart, 290
F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002)).
recover disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a
claimant must establish that she is disabled. Snedden v.
Colvin, No. 14 C 9038, 2016 WL 792301, at *6 (N.D. Ill.
Feb. 29, 2016). A claimant is disabled if she is unable to
perform “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 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). In
determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, an
ALJ must conduct a standard five-step inquiry, which involves
analyzing: “(1) whether the claimant is currently
employed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment is one that the
Commissioner considers conclusively disabling; (4) if the
claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment,
whether he can perform his past relevant work; and (5)
whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the
national economy.” Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d
642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520).
If the claimant meets her burden of proof at steps one
through four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step
five. Moore v. Astrue, 851 F.Supp.2d 1131, 1139-40
(N.D. Ill. 2012).