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Shekinah R. v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 15, 2019

SHEKINAH R., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Sheila Finnegan United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.


         Plaintiff 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).

         The 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).

         On 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.

         In 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.


         A. Standard of Review

         Judicial 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)).

         In 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)).

         B. Five-Step Inquiry

         To 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).

         C. ...

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