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Trina B. v. Saul

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

August 26, 2019

TRINA B., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey Cummings United States Magistrate Judge

         Pursuant to this Court's order (Dckt. #17), pro se plaintiff Trina B. (“Claimant”) timely filed an opening brief in support of her request to reverse the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security that denied her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIBs”) under 42 U.S.C. §§416(i) and 423(d) of the Social Security Act. The Commissioner subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that the final decision should be upheld because Claimant does not assert proper grounds for seeking remand under 42 U.S.C. §405(g). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment [Dckt. #24] is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Claimant worked in the fast food industry from January 1989 until January 2013. (R. 170.) In January 2014, Claimant filed her initial claim for disability based on the following conditions: arthritis in back; arthritis in pelvis; kidney disease; high blood pressure; and blood disease. (R. 74, 152-53.) In her Function Report, Claimant explained that she could not stand or sit for extended periods of time without back and leg pain. (R. 190.) During her September 19, 2016 hearing, Claimant testified that she has pain in her back and swelling in her legs that causes her to lose balance. (R. 40.) Claimant further testified that she is unable to walk, sit, or stand for a long period of time. (Id.)

         On October 31, 2016, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Edward Studzinski issued a twelve-page decision in which he found that Claimant was not disabled and denied her application for DIBs. (R. 12-32.) Claimant requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on October 23, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-6); Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 883 (7th Cir. 2001). Claimant subsequently filed a complaint in the District Court seeking to reverse the Commissioner's decision.

         In her opening brief, Claimant set forth a narrative describing her physical symptoms and attached five pages of her medical records that post-date her September 19, 2016 hearing before the ALJ in support of her argument that she is entitled to DIBs. Dckt. #18. In his memorandum in support of his motion for summary judgment, the Commissioner asserts that Claimant has failed to set forth proper grounds for seeking remand under 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and criticizes Claimant for submitting a brief that does not comply with Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 28. Dckt. #25. In her reply, Complainant argues that her prior attorney did not submit all of the medical evidence to support her claim to the ALJ and she attached additional pages of medical records which she claims should be taken into consideration despite the fact that almost all of these records - - which were created in 2017 and 2018 - - post-date the ALJ's 2016 decision. Dckt. #26.

         LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. Claimant has failed to establish that this case should be remanded for consideration of the medical records that she has attached to her submissions

          Although Claimant's pro se submissions are “liberally construed, ” Kabele v. Colvin, No. 12-CV-776-WMC, 2015 WL 1430343, at *4 (W.D.Wis. Mar. 27, 2015) (citing Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)), this principle does not relieve Claimant of her obligation to identify and support appropriate grounds to reverse the adverse decision by the Commissioner regarding her application for DIBs. See, e.g., Parkell v. Danberg, 833 F.3d 313, 324 n.6 (3d Cir. 2016) (“unrepresented litigants are not relieved from the rules of procedure and the requirements of substantive law.”). In this case, Claimant does not identify any error by the ALJ nor does she argue that there was a lack of substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision. Instead, Claimant describes the physical symptoms that she is currently experiencing and pins the blame for denial of her benefits on her former attorney. Dckt. #18, at 1-3; Dckt. #26, at 2. In particular, Claimant asserts that “I was denied social security benefits due to my lawyer at the time who didn't submit all my medical evidence to support my claim.” Dckt. #26, at 2. Claimant asks this Court to “please look over all my medical records to make a decision in my favor, ” and she attached roughly thirty pages of medical records to her opening brief and reply submission. Dckt. #18, at 4-8; Dckt. #26, at 3-29.

         The Court - - as does the Commissioner (Dckt. #2, at 2) - - construes Claimant's submissions to request relief under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. §405(g), which provides that the Court may remand the case to allow for additional evidence to be presented to the Commissioner upon a showing that “there is new evidence which is material and that there is good cause for the failure to incorporate such evidence into the record in a prior proceeding.” Id.; Anderson v. Bowen, 868 F.2d 921, 927 (7th Cir. 1989). Claimant bears the burden of proving that these requirements have been met. See Rudolph v. Colvin, No. 12-CV-1159, 2013 WL 5945788, at *1 (E.D.Wis. Nov. 5, 2013); Overcash v. Astrue, No. 5:07-CV-123-RL, 2011 WL 815789, at *3 (W.D. N.C. Feb. 28, 2011).

         “Before the Court considers whether the evidence is new and material, it must decide whether there was good cause for failure to present such evidence earlier.” McGrath v. Astrue, No. 11 CV 2125, 2012 WL 1204391, at *9 (N.D.Ill. Apr. 10, 2012). Claimant asserts that her lawyer was “nervous” and failed to properly answer the ALJ's questions because the ALJ supposedly did not like lawyers. Dckt. #26, at 2. Claimant further asserts that she did not realize that her attorney failed to bring all of her medical records to the hearing until after the hearing was over. Id. Even presuming that Claimant's assertions about her prior attorney's shortcomings are factually accurate, [2] they would not provide “good cause” for a remand. This is so because “[c]ourts around the country . . . have repeatedly held that ‘[m]istakes by an attorney are not considered to be ‘good cause' for purposes of a remand under Sentence Six.'” Shaver v. Colvin, No. 3:13-CV-00388-FDW, 2014 WL 3854143, at *4 (W.D. N.C. Aug. 6, 2014), quoting Benton v. Astrue, No. 0:09-892-HFF-PJG, 2010 WL 3419276, at *4 (D.S.C. April 28, 2010); Taylor v. Commissioner of Social Security, 43 Fed.Appx. 941, 943 (6th Cir. 2002) (“there is absolutely no statutory or decisional authority for [the plaintiff's] . . . premise that the alleged incompetence of her first attorney constitutes ‘good cause' in this context.”).

         Because the Court has found that there was no good cause for failing to introduce the medical records that Claimant has attached to her submissions, the Court need not decide whether the evidence is new and material. Waite v. Bowen, 819 F.2d 1356, 1361 (7th Cir. 1987); Wilson v. Shalala, 7 F.3d 239, 1993 WL 404256, at *3 n.1 (7th Cir. 1993). Nonetheless, for purposes of completeness, the Court does address the materiality issue and it finds that the medical records that Claimant offers for consideration are not material. “Additional evidence is material if there is a reasonable possibility that it would have changed the outcome of the Secretary's determination.” McGrath, 2012 WL 1204391, at *3. “[N]ew evidence is material only if it is relevant to the claimant's condition ‘during the relevant time period encompassed by the disability application under review.'” Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 742 (7th Cir. 2005), quoting Kapusta v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 94, 97 (7th Cir. 1990).

         Almost all of the medical records that Claimant has attached to her submissions are immaterial because they were created in 2017 and 2018[3] and therefore postdate - - and could not have affected - - the ALJ's October 31, 2016 decision. See, e.g., Getch v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 473, 484 (7th Cir. 2008); Schmidt, 395 F.3d at 742; Kapusta, 900 F.2d at 97; Taylor, 43 Fed.Appx. at 943. The few remaining records that were in existence at the time of the hearing are likewise non-material because they concern matters addressed by the ALJ in his decision and thus do not “constitute substantive evidence in addition to that already available in the record.” Jirau v. Astrue, 715 F.Supp.2d 814, 825 (N.D.Ill. 2010). Consequently, Claimant has failed to meet her burden of showing that a remand is required under sentence six of 42 U.S.C. §405(g).

         B. The ALJ's decision was supported by ...


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