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Candi Lynn M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 22, 2019

CANDI LYNN M., [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 Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for disability benefits in September 2013, alleging disability as of March 6, 2013. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application in January 2016. (Tr. 9-30). Plaintiff sought judicial review, and the case was remanded to the agency. (Tr. 1271-1287). On remand, the same ALJ again denied the application in October 2018. That decision is the final agency decision now subject to judicial review. (Tr. 1165-1181). 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 plaintiff's RFC because he ignored her use of prescription pain medications and referrals to pain management and orthopedic specialists.
2. The ALJ failed to consider whether plaintiff was entitled to a closed period of disability.

         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 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 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). 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 from the alleged onset date through her date lase insured, December 31, 2017. He found that plaintiff had severe impairments of lung cancer with surgical intervention, in remission; COPD; left shoulder and upper extremity impairment, including left shoulder brachial plexopathy; and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine.[3] He also found that her mental impairments of affective disorder and anxiety disorder were not severe.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work at the light exertional level with a number of physical limitations. As is relevant here, she was limited to only occasional fingering, handling, and feeling with her left upper extremity and no overhead reaching with her left upper extremity.[4] Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff could not do her past work, but she was not disabled because she was able to do other jobs which exist in significant numbers in the national and regional economies.

         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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