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Jennifer C. v. Saul

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

September 12, 2019

JENNIFER C., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff 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.


         Plaintiff 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).

         The 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).

         The ALJ held a new hearing on April 25, 2017.[1] 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 Commissioner.

         In 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.


         A. Standard of Review

         Judicial 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)).

         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)). 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)).

         B. Five-Step Inquiry

         To 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).

         C. Analysis

         1. 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).

         In the 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 ...

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