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Jessica L. C. T. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

January 8, 2020

JESSICA L. C. T., [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 plaintiff Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits until August 13, 2015, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff applied for SSI in March 2014, alleging disability as of March 9, 2009. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ issued a partially favorable decision on April 23, 2018. (Tr. 14, 30-31). The Appeals Council agreed with the ALJ decision, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency decision. (Tr. 1). Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was filed in this Court.

         Issues Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff raises the following point:

1. The ALJ erred by cherry-picking the evidence in the course of his analysis of medical records from Banning Mental Health.

         Applicable Legal Standards

         To qualify for SSI, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable statutes and regulations.[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 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 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).

         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, 2019 WL 1428885, at *3 ( S.Ct. Apr. 1, 2019) (internal citations omitted).

         In reviewing for “substantial evidence, ” this Court takes the entire administrative record 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 the alleged onset date.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of obesity, hypertension, bipolar disorder not otherwise specified, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder.

         The ALJ found that, prior to August 13, 2015, the established onset date, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. She could sit, stand, or walk about six hours each day in an eight-hour work day. She could push and pull as much as she could lift and carry. She could occasionally climb ramps or stairs but could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolding. She could never work at unprotected heights or around dangerous, moving machinery. She could never operate a motor vehicle as part of her job duties. She could perform the basic mental demands of semi-skilled work where she had limited interpersonal interactions. On a sustained basis, she could understand, remember and carry out simple and semi-skilled tasks. She could occasionally interact with supervisors, coworkers, or the public.

         The ALJ found that, as of August 13, 2015, plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently. She can sit, stand, or walk about six hours each in an eight-hour work day. She can push and pull as much as she can lift and carry. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolding. She should never work at unprotected heights or around dangerous, moving machinery. She should never operate a motor vehicle as part of her job duties. She can perform the basic mental demands of semi-skilled work. She can understand, remember and carry out simple and semi-skilled tasks. However, she cannot respond appropriately to supervisors, coworkers, or the public.

         The ALJ found plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was disabled, with the onset date being August 13, 2015 as opposed to March 9, 2009, because no jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform.

         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 plaintiff's arguments.

         1. Agency Forms

         Plaintiff was born in 1980 and was 37 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 196). Between 2006 and 2012, she worked as a retail stocker, and was self-employed ...


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