Peters v. Commissioner of Social Security
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER, The final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Scott Peters' application for disability benefits is AFFIRMED.The Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment in favor of defendant. Signed by Judge J. Phil Gilbert on 8/10/2017. (jdh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil No. 16-cv-1271-JPG-CJP
MEMORANDUM and ORDER
In accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Scott Peters seeks judicial review of the
final agency decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) pursuant to
42 U.S.C. § 423.
Peters is pro se in this Court but was represented by counsel at the administrative stage.
Plaintiff applied for benefits in November 2013, alleging disability beginning on August 2,
2005. By the time an evidentiary hearing was held, Peters was incarcerated on criminal charges
brought by the State of Illinois. His attorney waived Peters’ personal appearance at the hearing.
His attorney also amended his alleged date of onset to May 1, 2013, and sought only a closed
period of disability from that date to October 1, 2014. After holding an evidentiary hearing in
plaintiff’s absence, ALJ Lovert F. Bassett denied the application on February 25, 2016. (Tr.
86-98). The Appeals Council denied review, and the decision of the ALJ became the final agency
Nancy A. Berryhill is now the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. See, Casey v. Berryhill, __ F3d. __, 2017
WL 398309 (7th Cir. Jan. 30, 2017). She is automatically substituted as defendant in this case. See Fed. R. Civ. P.
25(d); 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
decision. (Tr. 9). Administrative remedies have been exhausted and a timely complaint was
filed in this Court.
Issues Raised by Plaintiff
Plaintiff’s pro se brief (Doc. 35) raises the following points:
His attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel in several respects.
His due process and equal protection rights were violated because he did not
personally waive his right to be present for the hearing or amend his onset date.
Plaintiff was denied his right to cross-examine witnesses.
The ALJ’s decision was wrong because the VA has found him to be disabled.
The ALJ was biased against him, as illustrated by the ALJ’s permitting the
agency’s expert reports to be presented with no opposition. Further, the ALJ
impugned plaintiff’s credibility and based his decision on VA medical records that
contained numerous errors.
Plaintiff was not examined by a medical expert or an independent consultant.
Applicable Legal Standards
To qualify for DIB, a claimant must be disabled within the meaning of the applicable
statutes. For these purposes, “disabled” means the “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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
A “physical or mental impairment” is an impairment resulting from anatomical,
physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). “Substantial gainful
activity” is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities, and that is
done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572.
Social Security regulations set forth a sequential five-step inquiry to determine whether a
claimant is disabled. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has explained this process as follows:
The first step considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful
activity. The second step evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental
impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement.
The third step compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered
conclusively disabling. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed
impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not
meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation continues. The fourth step
assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in
past relevant work. If an applicant can engage in past relevant work, he is not
disabled. The fifth step assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as his age, education,
and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work.
If the applicant can engage in other work, he is not disabled.
Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 568-569 (7th Cir. 2011).
Stated another way, it must be determined: (1) whether the claimant is presently
unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that is
serious; (3) whether the impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged to
be conclusively disabling; (4) whether the claimant can perform past relevant work; and (5)
whether the claimant is capable of performing any work within the economy, given his or her age,
education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d 503, 512-513
(7th Cir. 2009).
This Court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to ensure that the decision is supported by
substantial evidence and that no mistakes of law were made. 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. See, Books v. Chater, 91 F.3d 972, 977-78 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing Diaz v. Chater, 55
F.3d 300, 306 (7th Cir. 1995)). This Court uses the Supreme Court’s definition of substantial
evidence, i.e., “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
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. Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384,
1390 (7th Cir. 1997); Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th Cir. 2014).
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
ALJ Bassett followed the five-step analytical framework described above. He determined
that plaintiff was insured for DIB only through June 30, 2014, and had not worked at the level of
substantial gainful activity from the amended alleged onset date through June 30, 2014. He found
that plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine,
and obesity, which did not meet or equal a listed impairment.
The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full
range of work at the light exertional level. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ
found that plaintiff could do his past work as a project director. In the alternative, a finding of not
disabled was directed by the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”) Rule 202.14 because he
was able to do a full range of light work, was in the category of “closely approaching advanced
age,” and had a high school education.
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 the points raised by
plaintiff and is confined to the relevant time period.
Because of the nature of plaintiff’s
arguments, a detailed review of the medical records is not necessary.
Plaintiff was born in 1962 and was almost 51 years old on the alleged onset date of May 1,
2013. A prior claim had been denied in January 2008. (Tr. 257-258). He had two years of
college education. (Tr. 262). He had worked as a consultant in project management from 2002
to 2006, and as a sheet metal worker from 1992 to September 2001. (Tr. 268). From April 2007
to September 2009, plaintiff tried to work as a self-employed consultant. (Tr. 282-283).
Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at both evidentiary hearings. (Tr. 24, 30).
At the first hearing, held in June 2015, plaintiff’s wife stated that plaintiff had been
convicted of attempted murder of two officers, along with other charges including weapons
charges. He was in jail awaiting sentencing. (Tr. 35). Plaintiff’s attorney amended his alleged
date of onset to May 1, 2013, and waived his right to appear at the hearing. (Tr. 38-41, 43-44).
The attorney said that he was claiming a closed period between May 1, 2013, and October 16,
2014. (Tr. 45). The attorney later sent the ALJ a letter confirming that he was seeking a closed
period of disability from May 1, 2013, to October 1, 2014. (Tr. 364).
The ALJ had a psychological expert available to testify, but plaintiff’s attorney declined
because plaintiff was not claiming any “mental disability.” (Tr. 42).
Plaintiff’s wife testified that he worked as a project director for C&P Maintenance from
2007 through 2009. (Tr. 48).
A supplemental hearing was held in December 2015.
Plaintiff was incarcerated at
Stateville Correctional Center. His attorney again waived his appearance at the hearing. (Tr.
Plaintiff received medical treatment at a VA facility. The records reflect that his hip and
pelvis were fractured in 1982 when a Jeep landed on him. (Tr. 438).
In October 2012, an MRI of the lumbar spine showed some hypertrophic changes of facet
joints at L3 through L4, mild to moderate hypertrophic changes, minimal posterior disc bulging
and mild to moderate narrowing of the sagittal dimension vertebral canal at L4-L5, and moderate
to severe hypertrophic changes of facet joints, minimal to mild disc protrusion and some
encroachment of neural foramens at L5-S1. (Tr. 450-451).
A CT scan of the cervical spine in April 2013 showed degenerative changes at C3-4. (Tr.
During the period in issue, plaintiff was treated for complaints of neck and back pain. In
May 2013 he presented to the emergency room with mid-thoracic back pain. His pain had
recurred after he ran out of Hydrocodone and Valium.
He was diagnosed with acute
thoracic/trapezius muscle spasm and pain. He was prescribed Hydrocodone, Valium and a
Medrol dose pack. (Tr. 416-418). He was seen again in June when he ran out of medication.
On exam, he had muscle spasms in the neck and trapezius muscle. Sensation was intact and his
gait was normal. (Tr. 404-407).
In July 2013, a doctor in the physical medicine rehab department assessed plaintiff. He
complained of increasing right hip and low back pain. She reviewed his records back to 2007 and
noted he had “multiple exams with rather minimal findings.” EMG did not show radiculopathy.
She reviewed his lumbar MRI and cervical CT scans described above. On exam, he had
functional movement of all limbs, good sitting posture, fair standing posture and no frank lower
extremity muscle atrophy. She recommended physical therapy and a possible trial of a TENS
unit. (Tr. 396-400). Later that month, a functional screening indicated that plaintiff did not have
mobility, balance or gait problems, and he did not have difficulties with activities of daily living.
The health summary at the beginning of the VA records indicates he was last seen in
September 2013, when a colonoscopy was done. (Tr. 365, 367).
Plaintiff was an inmate in the Illinois Department of Corrections at the time he filed suit.
According to the IDOC website, https://www.illinois.gov/idoc/, visited on August 3, 2017, his
projected parole date is in March 2130. He cannot be paid social security disability benefits while
he is in prison for a felony conviction. However, if he were to be found disabled and his wife met
the criteria for benefits, she would not be precluded from receiving payment while he is in prison.
42 U.S.C. § 402(a)(1)(A)(i); 20 C.F.R. § 404.468.
Plaintiff applied for DIB. He was insured for DIB only through June 30, 2014. In a DIB
case, a claimant must establish that he was disabled as of his date last insured. Stevenson v.
Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1154 (7th Cir. 1997). It is not sufficient to show that the impairment was
present as of the date last insured; rather plaintiff must show that the impairment was severe
enough to be disabling as of the relevant date. Martinez v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir.
A few points mentioned by plaintiff can be swiftly disposed of. At page 10 of his brief,
plaintiff cites the definition of disability set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act. That
definition does not apply here. The relevant definition of disability is set forth above. The fact
that the VA found that he has a service-related disability does not mean that he is entitled to social
security disability benefits because the two agencies evaluate disability claims differently. Bird v.
Berryhill, 847 F.3d 911, 913 (7th Cir. 2017). Whether or not an employer would actually hire him
is not the standard for disability. Barrett v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1065, 1067 (7th Cir. 2004).
Plaintiff advances a number of constitutional claims, none of which are meritorious.
Social security disability claims are civil, not criminal in nature.
Therefore, he had no
constitutional right to personally appear at the hearing or to confront the witnesses against him.
Because the proceedings were civil, plaintiff had no constitutional right to counsel. Pruitt
v. Mote, 503 F.3d 647, 656-657 (7th Cir. 2007). The Sixth Amendment guarantee of the effective
assistance of counsel does not apply in a civil case. Diggs v. Ghosh, 850 F.3d 905, 911 (7th Cir.
2017). Any argument that plaintiff’s attorney committed malpractice in representing him before
the agency cannot be considered here because professional negligence, if it occurred, would not be
grounds to reverse the Commissioner’s decision. Stanciel v. Gramley, 267 F.3d 575, 581 (7th
Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ erred in accepting his counsel’s waiver of his appearance at
the hearings and amendment of the alleged date of onset of disability. He is incorrect. In
keeping with the general rule that an attorney acts as the agent of his client, the regulations provide
that a claimant’s representative may, on the claimant’s behalf, “make statements about facts and
law” and “make any request or give any notice about the proceedings before us.” 20 C.F.R. §
Further, the Appointment of Representative form signed by plaintiff and his
attorney provides that the representative “may, entirely in my place, make any request or give any
notice . . . in connection with my pending claim(s) or asserted right(s).” (Tr. 109).
Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ was biased against him and faults the ALJ for not doing
more to ensure that his rights were protected and that evidence was presented to support his claim
of disability. Plaintiff misunderstands the role of the ALJ, which is not to function as an advocate
for the claimant.
On the contrary, where the claimant is represented by counsel, “the
administrative law judge is entitled to assume that the applicant is making his strongest case for
benefits.” Glenn v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 814 F.2d 387, 391 (7th Cir. 1987).
Plaintiff argues that the VA records contained inaccurate statements and that the ALJ’s
decision cannot stand because it was based on the inaccurate records. Attached to his brief are
some pages of the VA medical records with his hand-written notations and criticisms. However,
this Court can consider only the evidence that was before the ALJ. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Stepp
v. Colvin, 795 F.3d 711, 721 n.2 (7th Cir. 2015); Rice v. Barnhart, 384 F.3d 363, 366 n.2 (7th Cir.
2004). No evidence was presented to the ALJ to suggest that the VA medical records were
inaccurate. The ALJ cannot be faulted for taking the records at face value.
Plaintiff also faults the ALJ for not obtaining a consultative examination of him. The
record does not reflect that plaintiff’s attorney requested an examination. Courts generally defer
to the ALJ’s decision about whether to order a consultative examination. Noting that the clamant
has the “primary responsibility for producing medical evidence demonstrating the severity of
impairments,” the Seventh Circuit has recognized that, “because it is always possible to identify
one more test or examination an ALJ might have sought, the ALJ’s reasoned judgment of how
much evidence to gather should generally be respected.” Flener v. Barnhart, 361 F.3d 442, 448
(7th Cir. 2004). Here, an examination would have been of doubtful value, as the issue is whether
plaintiff was disabled as of June 30, 2014, and the request for hearing by an ALJ was not filed until
November 2014. (Tr. 116).
That leaves plaintiff’s argument that the ALJ failed to properly consider his complaints of
pain. Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ’s comparing his complaints to the objective evidence.
However, it was not error to consider the discrepancy between the objective medical records and
plaintiff’s subjective claims. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 923 (7th Cir. 2010). There was no
evidence that plaintiff had any mental condition which affected his pain, so his citation to
Carradine v. Barnhart, 360 F.3d 751, 754 (7th Cir. 2004), is not applicable. Plaintiff argues that
the ALJ was inconsistent in finding that he had severe impairments but also finding that there was
nothing wrong with him. However, the ALJ did not find that there was nothing wrong with
plaintiff. He accepted that plaintiff had severe impairments which caused him some pain during
the period at issue. That is why he limited him to only light work.
Having carefully considered plaintiff’s arguments, the Court finds that none are
meritorious. Even if reasonable minds could differ as to whether plaintiff was disabled at the
relevant time, the ALJ’s decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, and
the Court cannot make its own credibility determination or substitute its judgment for that of the
ALJ in reviewing for substantial evidence. Shideler v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 306, 310 (7th Cir. 2012);
Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d at 413. ALJ Bassett’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, and
so must be affirmed.
After careful review of the record as a whole, the Court is convinced that ALJ Bassett
committed no errors of law, and that his findings are supported by substantial evidence.
Accordingly, the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Scott Peters’
application for disability benefits is AFFIRMED.
The Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment in favor of defendant.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/J. Phil Gilbert
J. PHIL GILBERT
U. S. DISTRICT JUDGE
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