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LaFayette v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

February 27, 2018




         Kennedy Lafayette alleges disability based primarily on back pain stemming from his scoliosis. After the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied his applications for disability benefits, Mr. Lafayette requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ determined that Mr. Lafayette was capable of working notwithstanding his impairments. Mr. Lafayette now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         Mr. Lafayette argues that the ALJ committed errors in assessing his residual functional capacity (RFC)-that is, the most he can still do despite his limitations. He seeks an award of benefits or, alternatively, a remand for further proceedings. The Commissioner contends that the ALJ did not commit an error of law in reaching her decision and that the decision is otherwise supported by substantial evidence. For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees with the Commissioner and therefore will affirm its decision denying Mr. Lafayette disability benefits.

         I. Background

         Kennedy Lafayette was born in Gary, Indiana, on October 12, 1971. Transcript 28, 296, ECF Nos. 12-2-12-9. He moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for his junior year of high school and eventually obtained his diploma through Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Tr. 296. In 2000, Mr. Lafayette began working at Aurora Sinai Medical Center as an x-ray file clerk. Tr. 30, 202. He stopped working in 2010, however, because he was unable to perform the increased job duties required by his employer. Tr. 31-33, 202-08, 213-14, 237-38, 282, 284. In 2012, Mr. Lafayette began studying educational policy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Tr. 30, 220. He transferred to MATC for the Fall 2014 semester. Tr. 50.

         Mr. Lafayette suffers from scoliosis, psychological issues, gastroesophageal reflux disease, anemia, unintentional weight loss, and dyspepsia. Tr. 212. He applied for disability insurance benefits in September 2010 but was denied at the administrative level. See Tr. 68-75. Mr. Lafayette reapplied in February 2013, alleging that his disability began on January 11, 2013. Tr. 188-200. This time he also sought supplemental security income. After the SSA denied his applications initially, Tr. 79-91, and upon reconsideration, Tr. 92-117, Mr. Lafayette requested a hearing before an ALJ, Tr. 146-77, 180-86.

         The administrative hearing was held on October 13, 2015, before ALJ Margaret J. O'Grady. See Tr. 25-63; see also Tr. 118-21, 178-79, 286. Mr. Lafayette was represented by counsel at the hearing. The ALJ heard testimony from Mr. Lafayette and William Dingess, M.S., B.S., an impartial vocational expert. At the time of the hearing, Mr. Lafayette was not married, and he had a sixteen-year-old child. Tr. 29. He was living at his cousin's house, but he frequently moved from place to place, staying with family or at shelters. Tr. 29, 35-36. Mr. Lafayette was, however, taking basic skills courses at MATC. Tr. 50-54, 393-94.

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process and on December 8, 2015, she issued a decision unfavorable to Mr. Lafayette. Tr. 6-24. The ALJ determined that (1) Mr. Lafayette did not engage in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date; (2) Mr. Lafayette suffered from three "severe" impairments: scoliosis, anemia, and hemorrhoids; (3) Mr. Lafayette did not suffer from an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a presumptively disabling impairment; Mr. Lafayette had the RFC to perform sedentary work with certain physical restrictions; (4) Mr. Lafayette could not perform his past relevant work as a file clerk and parts transporter; and (5) Mr. Lafayette remained capable of performing the requirements of various unskilled, sedentary occupations. See Tr. 9-20. Based on those findings, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Lafayette was not disabled.

         Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Lafayette's request for review, Tr. 1-3, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, see Loveless v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 502, 506 (7th Cir. 2016).

         Mr. Lafayette filed this action without the assistance of counsel on January 19, 2017, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Complaint, ECF No. 1. The matter was reassigned to this Court after the parties consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction. See Consent to Proceed Before a Magistrate Judge, ECF Nos. 4, 5. Mr. Lafayette subsequently obtained counsel. See Appearance of Counsel, ECF No. 16. The matter is now fully briefed and ready for disposition. See Plaintiffs Brief in Support of Reversing the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, ECF No. 21; Defendant's Memorandum in Support of the Commissioner's Decision; ECF No. 22; Plaintiffs Reply, ECF No. 25.

         II. Standard of Review

         "Judicial review of Administration decisions under the Social Security Act is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)." Allord v. Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 415 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Jones v. Astrue, 623 F.3d 1155, 1160 (7th Cir. 2010)). Pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g), federal courts have the power to affirm, reverse, or modify the Commissioner's decision, with or without remanding the matter for a rehearing.

         Judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by "substantial evidence." See § 405(g); see also Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1120-21 (7th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Moore, 743 F.3d at 1120-21 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, "even if an alternative position is also supported by substantial evidence." Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 699 (7th Cir. 2004).

         In reviewing the record, courts "may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute [their] judgment for that of the ALJ." Skarbek v. Barnhart, 390 F.3d 500, 503 (7th Cir. 2004). Rather, reviewing courts must determine whether the ALJ built an "accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result to afford the claimant meaningful judicial review of the administrative findings." Beardsley v. Colvin, 758 F.3d 834, 837 (7th Cir. 2014); Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121. The ALJ's decision must be reversed "[i]f the evidence does not support the conclusion." Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837. Likewise, reviewing courts must remand "[a] decision that lacks adequate discussion of the issues." Moore, 743 F.3d at 1121.

         Reversal also is warranted "if the ALJ committed an error of law or if the ALJ based the decision on serious factual mistakes or omissions, " regardless of whether the decision is otherwise supported by substantial evidence. Beardsley, 758 F.3d at 837 (citations omitted). An ALJ commits an error of law if her decision "fails to comply with the Commissioner's regulations and rulings." Brown v. Barnhart, 298 F.Supp.2d 773, 779 (E.D. Wis. 2004). Reversal is not required, however, if the error is harmless. See, e.g., Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767, 773 (7th Cir. 2012); see also Keys v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 990, 994-95 (7th Cir. 2003).

         III. Discussion

         Mr. Lafayette maintains that he is disabled and that the Commissioner's decision to the contrary is not supported by substantial evidence and is contrary to law and regulation. See Compl. 4. He asks the Court to reverse the ALJ's decision and award benefits. See Pl.'s Reply 10. Alternatively, he seeks remand of the matter to the Commissioner for further proceedings. See Pl.'s Br. 19; Pl.'s Reply 10-11.

         A. Legal framework

         Under the Social Security Act, a person is "disabled" only if he is unable "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 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1) and 423(d)(1)(A). The disability must be sufficiently severe that the claimant cannot return to his prior job and is not capable of engaging in any other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         In determining whether a person is disabled, the SSA must follow a five-step sequential evaluation process, asking, in order: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset of disability; (2) whether the claimant suffers from a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of any impairment listed in the SSA regulations as presumptively disabling; (4) whether the claimant's RFC leaves him unable to perform the ...

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