United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
FINNEGAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Jennifer C. 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).
Plaintiff filed a brief explaining why the case should be
reversed or remanded, and the Commissioner responded with a
competing motion for summary judgment in support of affirming
the decision. After careful review of the record, the Court
now grants the Commissioner's motion.
applied for DIB on April 8, 2011, alleging disability since
December 3, 2010 due to ulcerative gastritis, arthritis,
stenosis, migraines, degenerative disc disease, spondylitis,
irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue/anemia, possible
fibromyalgia, dizziness/numbness, and colitis. (R. 135, 166).
Born in April 1971, Plaintiff was 40 years old at the time of
the application and was considered a younger individual
through her date last insured (“DLI”), December
31, 2015. (R. 135). She has a high school diploma and worked
as an ophthalmic technician from November 1999 to July 2005.
(R. 167). Beginning in August 2005, Plaintiff was hired as a
special education teacher's aide at an elementary school.
She subsequently moved to a similar position at a high school
and held that job until December 2010 when she quit due to
her impairments. (R. 51-52, 166-67).
Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's
application at all levels of review, and she appealed to the
district court. On August 24, 2016, Magistrate Judge Jeffrey
T. Gilbert, presiding by consent, reversed and remanded the
case to the Commissioner for further proceedings, finding
that the assigned administrative law judge
(“ALJ”), Melissa M. Olivero: (1) erred in
omitting reference to the opinions of Plaintiff's
treating chiropractor, Bruce Burkhart, D.C.; and (2) failed
to explain the functional impact of Plaintiff's headaches
in determining her residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). Judge Gilbert instructed that in
addition to rectifying these errors on remand, “the ALJ
must reevaluate the intensity and persistence of
Claimant's symptoms in light of the Administration's
recent Policy Interpretation Ruling regarding the evaluation
of symptoms in disability claims.” (R. 469-78);
Cummings v. Colvin, No. 14 C 10180, 2016 WL 4483854
(N.D. Ill. Aug. 24, 2016). On October 28, 2016, the Appeals
Council vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and
remanded the case to a different ALJ, Kathleen Kadlec,
“for further proceedings consistent with the order of
the court.” (R. 487). The ALJ was instructed to
“offer [Plaintiff] the opportunity for a hearing, take
any further action needed to complete the administrative
record and issue a new decision.” (R. 488).
held a new hearing on April 25, 2017. Plaintiff appeared with
counsel and provided testimony along with vocational expert
Julie Lynn Bose (the “VE”). (R. 357-99). On
November 8, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's
degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, degenerative
disc disease of the lumbar spine, and fibromyalgia were all
severe impairments, but they did not meet or equal any of the
listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1. (R. 331). After reviewing the medical and testimonial
evidence in detail, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled at any time from her December 3, 2010 alleged onset
date through her December 31, 2015 DLI because she retained
the RFC to perform her past work as an ophthalmic technician
and a teacher's aide, as well as a significant number of
other jobs available in the national economy, including
housekeeper/cleaner, mail clerk, and office helper. (R.
331-44). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's
decision, which stands as the final decision of the
support of her request for reversal or remand, Plaintiff
argues that the ALJ: (1) erred in assessing her ability to
handle, feel, and finger with both upper extremities; (2)
improperly found her capable of light work; (3) failed to
adequately evaluate Dr. Burkhart's opinion as instructed
by Judge Gilbert; (4) improperly determined that her migraine
headaches are not a severe impairment; and (5) erred in
evaluating her subjective statements regarding her symptoms.
For reasons discussed in this opinion, the Court finds that
the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence
and there are no errors warranting reversal or remand.
Standard of Review
review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized
by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act (the
“SSA”). 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)).
Where 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 SSA, a claimant must
establish that she is disabled within the meaning of the SSA.
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 law 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 [s]he can perform her 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).
Ability to Handle, Feel, and Finger
Plaintiff first argues that the case must be reversed or
remanded because the RFC does not properly account for her
difficulties with handling, feeling, and fingering. A
claimant's RFC is the maximum work that she can perform
despite any limitations. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(1); SSR 96-8p, at *1-2. “Although the
responsibility for the RFC assessment belongs to the ALJ, not
a physician, an ALJ cannot construct his own RFC finding
without a proper medical ground and must explain how he has
reached his conclusions.” Amey v. Astrue, No.
09 C 2712, 2012 WL 366522, at *13 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 2, 2012).
bold-faced recitation of Plaintiff's functional
abilities, the ALJ restricted Plaintiff to frequent operation
of hand controls and imposed no other manipulative
limitations, stating: “The claimant could handle,
finger and feel with her upper extremities
bilaterally.” (R. 331). In the narrative portion of the
decision, however, the ALJ stated that she was limiting
Plaintiff to “work that only requires her to operate
hand controls frequently and handle, finger and feel on a
frequent basis.” (R. 340) (emphasis added). In the
next paragraph, the ALJ reiterated that Plaintiff could only
perform work requiring her to “handle, finger and feel
frequently and only frequently operate hand
controls.” (Id.) (emphasis added). Based on
this discrepancy, Plaintiff assumes that the ALJ
“intended to find no [manipulative] restrictions”
and argues that “no doctor opined to that
finding.” (Doc. 10, at 6-7 and n.2; Doc. 19, at 2). As