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Kimberly A. C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

September 30, 2019

KIMBERLY A. C., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER of SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DONALD G. WILKERSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff, represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability benefits in November 2012, alleging disability as of September 15, 2010. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application in February 2015. (Tr. 12-19). Plaintiff sought judicial review, and the case was remanded to the agency by agreement of the parties. (Tr. 1376-1380). On remand, the same ALJ again denied the application in July 2016. That decision is the final agency decision. (Tr. 1325-1333). Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following points:

1. The ALJ erred in assessing the reliability of plaintiff's subjective allegations.
2. The ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinions.
3. The testimony of the vocational expert (VE) was not supported by substantial evidence.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes.[3] Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if he has an “inability to engage in 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a).

         To determine whether a plaintiff is disabled, the ALJ considers the following five questions in order: (1) Is the plaintiff presently unemployed? (2) Does the plaintiff have a severe impairment? (3) Does the impairment meet or medically equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations? (4) Is the plaintiff unable to perform his former occupation? and (5) Is the plaintiff unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         An affirmative answer at either step three or step five leads to a finding that the plaintiff is disabled. A negative answer at any step, other than at step three, precludes a finding of disability. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Once the plaintiff shows an inability to perform past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which plaintiff can perform. Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001).

         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to ensure that the decision is supported by substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. It is important to recognize that the scope of review is limited. “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, this Court must determine not whether plaintiff was, in fact, disabled at the relevant time, but whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and whether any errors of law were made. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). This Court uses the Supreme Court's definition of substantial evidence, i.e., “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (internal citations omitted).

         In reviewing for “substantial evidence, ” the entire administrative record is taken into consideration, but this Court does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Burmester v. Berryhill, 920 F.3d 507, 510 (7th Cir. 2019). However, while judicial review is deferential, it is not abject; this Court does not act as a rubber stamp for the Commissioner. See, Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 921 (7th Cir. 2010), and cases cited therein.

         The Decision of the ALJ

         The ALJ followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined that plaintiff had never worked at the level of substantial gainful activity. She was born in 1967 and was 49 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision.[4]

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of joint dysfunction with residuals of left total knee replacement; obesity; cor pulmonale; degenerative disc disease; and cardiomyopathy.[5]

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the sedentary exertional level limited to no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolding; no kneeling, squatting, or crawling; occasional stooping, crouching, reaching overhead, and climbing ramps and stairs; no concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures or pulmonary irritants; and no exposure to moving machinery, unprotected heights, or uneven surfaces. She needed a sit/stand option at will provided it would not cause her to be off-task more than 10% of the workday. She also had mental limitations which are not in issue here.

         Plaintiff had no past relevant work. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled because she was able to do jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

         The Evidentiary Record

         The Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The following summary of the ...


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