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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

February 22, 2016

KENNETH SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

WILLIAM E. DUFFIN, U.S. Magistrate Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Kenneth Smith suffers primarily from back pain and alleges that, as a result, he is disabled. On December 2, 2011, Smith applied for Supplement Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. (Tr. 229-34.) His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 91-96.) An administrative law judge (ALJ) likewise concluded after a full hearing that Smith was not disabled. (Tr. 31.) The Appeals Council denied review, and Smith filed the present action seeking a direct award of benefits or, in the alternative, remand pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (ECF No. 1 at 2.) Because the Appeals Council denied review, the ALJ’s decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120 (7th Cir. 2014). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73(b), the parties have both consented to the full jurisdiction of a magistrate judge. (ECF Nos. 4, 6.)

ALJ’S DECISION

In determining whether a person is disabled, an ALJ applies a five-step sequential evaluation process. At step one, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). The ALJ found that Smith was not so engaged. (Tr. 21.)

Step two considers whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that is “severe.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). “In order for an impairment to be considered severe at this step of the process, the impairment must significantly limit an individual’s ability to perform basic work activities.” Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. If the evidence indicates that an impairment is a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual’s ability to work, then it is not considered severe for step two purposes. Id. The ALJ concluded that Smith’s severe impairments were “disorders of the spine status post T5-T11 laminectomy and fusion.” (Tr. 21.) However, the ALJ also found that Smith’s asthma and mental impairments were not severe. (Tr. 21.)

At step three the ALJ is to determine whether the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926) (called “the Listings”). If the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria set forth in a listing and also meets the duration requirement, 20 C.F.R. § 416.909, the claimant is disabled. If the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments is not of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria set forth in a listing, the analysis proceeds to the next step. The ALJ found that Smith did not have any impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments, including Listing 1.04. (Tr. 21.)

In between steps three and four the ALJ must determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC), which is the claimant’s ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a regular and continuing basis despite limitations from her impairments. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. In making the RFC finding, the ALJ must consider all of the claimant’s impairments, including impairments that are not severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(e), 416.945. In other words, the RFC determination is a “function-by-function” assessment of the claimant’s maximum work capability. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 412 (7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ concluded that Smith

has the residual functional capacity to perform light work…except he is limited to occasional climbing of ramps or stairs; he is limited to no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and he is limited to occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, or crawling.

(Tr. 23.)

After determining the claimant’s RFC, the ALJ at step four must determine whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). The term “past relevant work” means work performed within the last fifteen years or fifteen years prior to the disability’s onset. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). The ALJ concluded at step four that Smith could perform “past relevant work as a counter clerk.” (Tr. 29.) Based on testimony from a vocational expert, these positions did not require Smith to perform work-related activities excluded from the RFC determination. (Tr. 30-31.) Because the ALJ found that Smith could perform past relevant work, he concluded that Smith was not disabled and did not proceed to step five. (Tr. 31.)

ANALYSIS

The court’s role in reviewing an ALJ’s decision is limited. It does not look at the evidence anew and make an independent determination as to whether or not the claimant is disabled. Rather, the court must affirm the ALJ’s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1120. Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1120-21 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Thus, it is possible that opposing conclusions can both be supported by substantial evidence. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004).

It is not the court’s role to reweigh evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. Rather, the court must determine whether the ALJ complied with his obligation to build an “accurate and logical bridge” between the evidence and his conclusion that is sufficient to enable a court to review the administrative findings. Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014); Thomas v. Colvin, 745 F.3d 802, 806 (7th Cir. 2014). “This deference is lessened, however, where the ALJ's findings rest on an error of fact or logic.” Thomas, 745 F.3d at 806. If the ALJ committed a material error of law, the court ...


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