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Schulte v. Saul

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

January 16, 2020

NANCY SCHULTE, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          J. PHIL GILBERT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This is an appeal of the Social Security Administration's decision denying Plaintiff Nancy Schulte's applications for disability insurance and Social Security Income benefits. Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, filed September 5, 2019. (ECF No. 16). The Commissioner of Social Security filed a response on November 7. (ECF No. 20). For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and AFFIRMS the Social Security Administration's decision.

         II. PROCEDURAL & FACTUAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff worked part-time as an assistant manager at a convenience store from 2008-2011. (Hr'g Tr. 10, ECF No. 13-2). Her duties included cashiering, unloading of goods, scheduling, and receiving orders. (Id. at 12). These duties mirrored her previous role as an assistant manager at a different convenience store from 2003-2006, where she was also charged with hiring, firing, and payroll. (Id. at 14-15).

         In April 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance and Social Security Income benefits with the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). (SSA Decision 1, ECF No. 13-1). She complained of arthritis in her lower back and neuropathy.[1] (Hr'g Tr. 20-21). The SSA denied Plaintiff's applications. (SSA Decision 1). That decision was affirmed upon reconsideration. (Id.). Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing on her applications before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id.). Plaintiff appeared pro se and was informed of her right to representation. (Id.).

         The ALJ applied the five-step analysis used to determine whether an applicant is disabled, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a), and concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled, (SSA Decision 2). At Step 1, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date in February 2014. At Step 2, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's conditions and concluded that she was suffering from severe impairments: “Asthma, obesity, psoriasis, venous insufficiency, sensory neuropathy, mild lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, mild cervical degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis/psoriatic arthritis, minimal white matter disease in the brain, and right knee degenerative joint disease.” (Id. at 3). At Step 3, however, the ALJ determined that these impairments did not meet the statutory listing for presumptive disability. (Id. at 5).

         In evaluating Plaintiff's residual functional capacity at Step 4, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work seated for six hours and standing for two hours. (Id. at 6- 9). The ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Alao, who asserted that Plaintiff “was limited to standing/walking and sitting 4 hours in an 8-hour day; she could sit and stand/walk for 30 minutes at a time; and she needed additional unscheduled breaks during the workday, per [Plaintiff].” (Id. at 8). According to the ALJ, Dr. Alao's opinion relied heavily on Plaintiff's subjective reports and was “not supported by the objective findings on the record.” (Id.). Although the ALJ did not dispute that Plaintiff's impairments could result in the symptoms complained of, he determined that they were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record, ” such as treatment records showing only mild degenerative disc disease, an electromyogram that yielded normal results, and mild findings on examination.[2] (Id.). Moreover, the ALJ asserted that this determination was supported by Plaintiff's recent history of cooking, driving, walking without an assistive device, and interstate travel. (Id.).

         Finally, the ALJ concluded at Step 5 that although Plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work due to exertion demands, she is still capable of performing semi-skilled work. (Id. at 9-11). This was based in part on the testimony by James E. Bordieri-a vocational expert. (Id.). He stated that Plaintiff possesses skills from her work as an assistant manager that would transfer to sedentary work, such as a personnel scheduler, payroll clerk, or “computer data entry person.” (Hr'g Tr. 45). He further stated that these positions are semi-skilled, require less skill than her previous position (although they involve “similar materials, products, processes, and . . . services”), and carry a specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) of 7. (Id. at 44, 46-47). Although the ALJ stated in his decision that the position carried a SVP of 4, he nevertheless agreed that Plaintiff was fit to work as a personnel scheduler, payroll clerk, or data-entry clerk. Accordingly, he denied Plaintiff's applications.

         In February 2019, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff motioned for summary judgment, (ECF No. 16), and the Commissioner responded, (ECF No. 20).

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         In reviewing the SSA's benefits decisions, the Court treats its findings as conclusive “so long as they are supported by ‘substantial evidence.' ” Beistek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2019) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). A decision is supported by substantial evidence if it contains sufficient evidence to support the SSA's factual determinations. Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938). This is not an onerous standard, meaning something “more than a mere scintilla.” Id. In other words, it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This only requires the Court to determine “whether the ALJ built an ‘accurate and logical bridge' from the evidence to her conclusion that the claimant is not disabled.” Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008)).

         IV. LAW & ANALYSIS

         The ALJ's decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits was based on substantial evidence. In giving little weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, the ALJ suitably discussed the conflicts between the physician's testimony and the objective medical evidence on the record. Moreover, the discrepancy between the vocational expert's SVP determination and the ALJ's decision was harmless error: The alternative ...


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