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Dr. B. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

January 15, 2020

Dr. B., [1]Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM and ORDER

          DONALD G. WILKERSON, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the pro se 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 January 2014, alleging a disability onset date of September 1, 2013. After holding an evidentiary hearing, an ALJ denied the application on November 16, 2016. (Tr. 16-24). 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.

         Issue Raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff filed a short brief at Doc. 25. She says that she is “neither getting better nor younger.” She says she is working as a substitute teacher, but that job is too stressful.

         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 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).

         It is important to recognize that the scope of judicial 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 worked part-time but not at the level of substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. She was insured for DIB through December 31, 2016. The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of non-ischemic cardiomyopathy and status post-surgery for uterine fibroids with associated anemia.[4]

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to do light work, limited to low stress work defined as having only occasional decision-making and occasional changes in work setting. The ALJ specified that the stress restriction resulted from her cardiovascular impairment and was not related to her mental health; ...


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