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Ann R. v. Saul

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

September 24, 2019

MARY ANN R., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          SHEILA FINNEGAN, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Mary Ann 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 filed cross-motions for summary judgment. After careful review of the record, the Court now grants the Commissioner’s motion and denies Plaintiff’s motion.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB on February 4, 2012, alleging disability since September 1, 2007 due to inflammatory rheumatoid arthritis. (R. 154, 175). Born in August 1964, Plaintiff was 47 years old at the time of the application and was considered a younger individual through her date last insured (“DLI”), June 30, 2013. (R. 154). She lives with her husband and children and attended one semester of college after graduating from high school. (R. 36). Between June 1989 and July 2007 Plaintiff worked as a bank teller and in related positions. (R. 37-40, 176). She quit on July 20, 2007 to care for her youngest child. (R. 40, 175). A couple of years later, Plaintiff fell ill with fatigue and constant pain. She tried to work in data entry in August 2010, and performed some intermittent, part-time service as a teacher’s aide from August 2009 to June 2011, but she was unable to sustain employment due to joint and body pain. (R. 40-41, 200). None of Plaintiff’s work after July 2007 constituted substantial gainful activity. (R. 612).

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff’s application at all levels of review, and she appealed to the district court. On October 20, 2015, this Court reversed and remanded the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Though the decision from administrative law judge Jose Anglada (the “ALJ”) was largely supported by substantial evidence, the Court found that he had erred in giving significant weight to the opinion of State agency reviewer Vidya Madala, M.D., without addressing the fact that Dr. Madala evaluated the medical evidence as if Plaintiff had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis when she had actually been diagnosed with seronegative rheumatoid arthritis. (R. 729-60); Reyes v. Colvin, No. 14 C 7359, 2015 WL 6164953 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 20, 2015). On January 7, 2016, the Appeals Council vacated the final decision of the Commissioner and remanded the case “for further proceedings consistent with the order of the court.” (R. 767). 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.” (Id.).

         To assist in reevaluating Plaintiff’s case, the ALJ asked Bernard Gussoff, M.D., an independent medical expert, to provide a Medical Source Statement of Ability to Do Work-Related Activities and answer written interrogatories regarding Plaintiff’s impairments. (R. 1097-1105). Dr. Gussoff submitted written responses on February 21, 2016 and the ALJ made them part of the record without objection. The ALJ also held a new hearing on December 12, 2016, and heard testimony from Plaintiff, who appeared with counsel, and from vocational expert Sara Elizabeth Gibson, M.A., (the “VE”). (R. 633-94). On January 13, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s polyarthritis/rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia are severe impairments, but they do not meet or equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 612-13). After reviewing the medical and testimonial evidence in detail, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time from her September 1, 2007 alleged onset date through her June 30, 2013 DLI because she retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a significant number of light jobs available in the national economy, including packer, assembler, and sorter. (R. 613-25). The Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction, 20 C.F.R. § 404.984, and Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ’s decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff’s arguments in support of reversing or remanding the case are best described as skeletal and undeveloped. From what the Court can gather, it appears Plaintiff believes the ALJ: (1) made a flawed RFC determination; (2) relied on faulty VE testimony in finding her capable of working as a packer, assembler, and sorter; and (3) failed to properly weigh Dr. Gussoff’s opinion. 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. ...

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