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Michael H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

October 21, 2019

MICHAEL H., [1]Plaintiff,



         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB in June 2015, alleging a disability onset date of February 21, 2012. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application on November 22, 2017. (Tr. 22-31). The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final agency decision subject to judicial review. (Tr. 1). Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. The ALJ failed to consider the effects of diabetes, Dr. Cahill's opinion regarding same, and the effects of absenteeism.
2. The ALJ failed to adequately assess Dr. Cahill's opinion.
3. The ALJ's analysis of plaintiff's subjective complaints is not based upon substantial evidence.
4. The ALJ failed to consider the effects of obesity.
5. The ALJ's assessment of Listing 1.02 was insufficient.
6. The ALJ failed to reconcile obvious conflicts between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT).

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes. 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 her 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 3 or step 5 leads to a finding that the plaintiff is disabled. A negative answer at any step, other than at step 3, precludes a finding of disability. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof at steps 1-4. Once the plaintiff shows an inability to perform past work, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show the plaintiff's ability to engage in other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 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. She first noted that a prior application had been denied by a different ALJ on January 21, 2014 and found no basis to reopen the prior denial. Therefore, plaintiff is deemed not disabled up to January 21, 2014.

         She determined that plaintiff had not worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since January 21, 2014. He was insured for DIB only through December 31, 2017. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of obesity and cardiomyopathy, which did not meet or equal a listed impairment.[3]She found that his type 2 diabetes and COPD were nonsevere impairments.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to do light work, limited to standing for no more than 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; walking for no more than 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; occasional operation of foot controls, balancing, and stooping; no kneeling, crouching, or crawling; no exposure to workplace hazards, humidity, wetness, or extreme temperatures; no operation of commercial motor vehicles; rare climbing of ramps and stairs; and no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds.

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do his past relevant work. However, he was not disabled because he was able to do other 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 record is directed to the points raised by plaintiff.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born in 1965 and was 52 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 266). He said he was disabled because of diabetes, COPD, cardiomyopathy, thick heart walls, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, acid reflux, dysfunction of left knee, and obesity. He was 5' 10” tall and weighed 293 pounds. He stopped working in ...

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