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Marsha B. v. Saul

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

October 16, 2019

MARSHA B., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,[1] Defendant.


          Susan E. Cox, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Marsha B.[2] (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her disability benefits. Plaintiff has filed a Brief in Support of Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which the Court construes as a motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 14); the Commissioner has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 25). As detailed below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 14), denies the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 25), and remands this matter for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         a. Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act on December 11, 2014, alleging disability beginning on May 1, 2014. (R. 13.) After her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. Id. On May 5, 2017, Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Laurie Wardell. (R. 31-68.) A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. Id. On November 1, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 13-25.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's appeal on September 27, 2018. (R. 1-6.) Thus, the Decision of the Appeals Council is the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed an action in this court on November 26, 2018, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. (Dkt. 1.)

         b. The ALJ's Decision and Relevant Hearing Testimony

         As noted above, at a VE testified at Plaintiff's hearing before the ALJ. The ALJ proffered the following hypothetical individual to the VE during his testimony:

Please assume for the first hypothetical an individual of the same age, education, and work history as the Claimant; able to do medium work; frequent ramps and stairs; no ladders, ropes and scaffolds; occasional balance, stoop kneel, crouch and crawl; occasional hazards, but no heights; occasional fumes, dust, odors and pulmonary irritants; simple routine repetitive tasks; simple work related decisions; occasional changes in the workplace; and occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.

(R. 62-63.) The VE opined that there would be several jobs available to such a hypothetical individual, including laundry laborer, dayworker, and machine packer. (R. 63.) When the ALJ questioned how a limitation that there be “no production rate pace” would affect the available jobs to a hypothetical claimant, the VE testified that the machine packer position would be eliminated for that individual. (R. 63.)

         On November 1, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits. (R. 13-25.) At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of May 1, 2014. (R. 16.) At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of asthma, arrhythmias, panic disorder, and cervical spine degenerative disc disease. (R. 16.)

         At Step Three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. (R. 16.) In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's mental impairment under Listing 12.04, including whether the “paragraph B” criteria were met. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had a moderate limitation in understanding, remembering, or applying information; a moderate limitation in interacting with others; a moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace; and moderate limitation in adapting or managing oneself. (R. 16-17.)

         Before Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[3] to perform medium work with the following limitations: frequent climbing of ramps and stairs, but never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no work with heights; occasional hazards; occasional exposure to fumes and odors; limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with simple work decisions and occasional changes; occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public. (R. 18.) Notably, these were the same limitations as the hypothetical individual considered by the VE at the hearing. At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was incapable of performing her past relevant as a nurse assistant, companion, or psychiatric aide. (R. 24.) At Step Five, the ALJ found that there was work existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, considering her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. Id. Because of these determinations, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. Id.

         II. Social Security Regulations and Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act requires all applicants to prove they are disabled as of their date last insured to be eligible for disability insurance benefits. ALJs are required to follow a sequential five-step test to assess whether a claimant is legally disabled. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; and (3) whether the severe impairment meets or equals one considered conclusively disabling such that the claimant is impeded from performing basic work-related activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). If the impairment(s) does meet or equal this standard, the inquiry is over and the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If not, the evaluation continues and the ALJ must determine (4) whether the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work. Cannon v. Harris,651 F.2d 513, 517 (7th Cir. 1981). If not, the ALJ must (5) consider the claimant's age, education, and prior work experience and evaluate whether she is able to engage in another type of work existing in a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Id. At the fourth and fifth steps of the inquiry, the ALJ is required to evaluate the claimant's RFC in calculating which ...

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