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Martha L. S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 5, 2019

MARTHA L. S., [1] Plaintiff,



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

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI in December 2014, alleging a disability onset date of September 15, 2014. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application on November 22, 2017. (Tr. 17-31). 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 administrative remedies and filed a timely complaint with this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. The ALJ's analysis of the opinion evidence is legally insufficient, and his decision to rely on the state agency doctor's opinion and discount plaintiff's treating provider's opinions, was not supported by substantial evidence.
2. The ALJ's residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment is not supported by substantial evidence.
3. The ALJ's analysis of plaintiff's subjective symptoms is legally insufficient.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for DIB or SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes[3]. Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if she 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). The Supreme Court defines substantial evidence as “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 not worked at the level of substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2014, and she was insured for DIB only through December 31, 2016. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of COPD, obesity, degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, and microvascular dysfunction.[4]

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to do light work, but she could occasionally lift/carry 25 pounds, and frequently lift/carry 20 pounds. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation.

         Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not able to do her past relevant work. However, she was not disabled because she 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 originally alleged that she became disabled as of September 1, 2011.

         In June 2017, she changed her alleged onset date to February 15, 2014. (Tr. 231). Plaintiff was born in 1963 and was about to turn 54 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 232). She said she was disabled because of COPD, chronic bronchitis, psoriasis on the hands and feet, arthritis, GERD, depression, and a heart condition. She was 5' 9” tall and weighed 215 pounds. She stopped working in September 2011. (Tr. 236). She had worked in the past as a cook in a fast food restaurant and a factory line worker. (Tr. 265).

         2. Evidentiary Hearing

         Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the hearing in July 2017. (Tr. 41).

         Plaintiff testified that she was 5' 8” tall and weighed about 200 pounds. Her weight went up and down, sometimes going up or down 30 to 40 pounds. She lived with her husband, adult son, and two grandchildren, ages 3 and 4. (Tr. 45-48, 61).

         Plaintiff said she could not work because of breathing problems from COPD and emphysema, back problems, and psoriasis on her hands and feet. (Tr. 55). She got ultraviolet light treatments for psoriasis. She used inhalers for COPD, which helped “a lot, ” but it was hard for her to be outside in very hot weather. (Tr. 56).

         When the psoriasis on her hands flared up, it was itchy and made it difficult to grip things. It usually ran its course. Her UV therapy appointments were usually at 8:10 in the morning. (Tr. 62-63). Her back started hurting if she stood for 45 minutes to an hour. Her knees were “fine.” She was able to walk to church, which was 7 or 8 blocks, but had to go slowly. She had chest pain if she was stressed. She could sit comfortably through a one-hour TV show. She did not ...

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