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Lawrence v. Astrue

August 17, 2009

TAMMY L. LAWRENCE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge

ORDER

This matter is now before the Court on Plaintiff Tammy L. Lawrence's ("Lawrence") Motion for Summary Judgment and the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security Administration's ("Defendant" or "Commissioner") Motion for Summary Affirmance. For the reasons set forth below, Lawrence's Motion for Summary Judgment [#10] is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance [#12] is DENIED.

Background

Lawrence filed her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on December 20, 2002, alleging an onset of her disability on May 1, 2001. (R. 37). Lawrence claims to suffer from severe fibromyalgia, depression, cognitive dysfunction, and a history of endometriosis.*fn1 She was born on December 17, 1963, and was 38 years old at the time of her alleged onset date. (R. 37).

Nine years later, Lawrence is still in pursuit of benefits.

Lawrence's claim was denied at the initial level on February 24, 2003, and reconsideration level on August 27, 2003, and she subsequently requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (R. 22-26, 29-32). On May 7, 2004, ALJ Benjamin Parks held a hearing where Lawrence appeared with counsel, and both she and Brian Paprocki, a vocational expert ("VE"), testified.On June 1, 2004,ALJ Parks issued his decision finding that Lawrence was not disabled, and the Appeals Council denied her request for review.*fn2

Lawrence then filed an action with the U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois, and her matter came before the Honorable Joe Billy McDade, in case number 04 CV 4074. Judge McDade did an admirable job setting forth Lawrence's symptoms, treatment, and diagnoses in his Order, dated September 18, 2006. (R. 404-22).

In his Order, Judge McDade noted that Dr. Michael Miniter, a treating physician and a rheumatologist, reached a different conclusion regarding the severity of Lawrence's fibromyalgia. (R. 407). Dr. Miniter found that Lawrence "clearly has fibromyalgia" and has problems with concentration, memory, joint pain, general aching, stiffness, and sleep difficulty. (R. 407). Dr. Miniter also opined that Lawrence has functional limitations and is limited to standing thirty minutes at a time, sitting less than two hours in an eight hour work day, and must walk around for approximately ten minutes every fifteen minutes. (R. 407-8). Dr. Miniter concluded that Lawrence would need to alternate standing and sitting, elevate her feet while working, and take ten minute unscheduled breaks every hour. (R. 408). She could occasionally lift ten pounds, twist and stoop, but could rarely crouch, climb ladders, or climb stairs. (R. 408). Dr. Miniter opined that Lawrence would likely be absent from work at least four days a month due to her impairments. (R. 408).

In his Order, Judge McDade reviewed Lawrence's medical examinations and treatment, and discussed both her and VE Paprocki's testimony before the ALJ. Judge McDade noted that when the ALJ presented VE Paprocki with a hypothetical based upon Dr. Miniter's opinions, VE Paprocki testified that Dr. Miniter's restrictions would preclude a hypothetical person from any employment. (R. 410).

Judge McDade reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded the case to the Appeals Council, pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (R. 422). Judge McDade found that the ALJ had failed to explain why he discounted the opinion of Dr. Miniter and concluded that the ALJ did not adequately discuss Lawrence's credibility. (R. 419, 421). Judge McDade remanded the case to the ALJ so that he could (1) articulate his reasons for rejecting Dr. Miniter's opinions and assessments of Lawrence's functional limitations and (2) articulate his reasons for rejecting the credibility of Lawrence's testimony. (R. 418, 421). Specifically, Judge McDade found:

In the record, it is clear that Dr. Miniter has diagnosed Lawrence with Fibromyalgia and opined that Lawrence's impairments are reasonably consistent with her symptoms and functional limitations. (R. at 275, 349). At Lawrence's hearing, the [VE] was presented with a hypothetical that reflected Dr. Miniter's opinion in his RFC questionnaire. The [VE] testified that the restrictions would not be accommodated by any employer. (R. at 374, emphasis added.) Thus, Dr. Miniter's medical opinion is in strong support of Lawrence's case and contrary to the ruling of the ALJ. (R. 417). Judge McDade found that the ALJ presented the evidence in a way that only supported his decision:

[T]he only reasoning given by the ALJ for discrediting Lawrence's testimony is that she testified that she cares for her daughter, works as part-time cook one day a week, shoveled snow and manure and handles the family finances. . . . The evidence was actually that she cares for her daughter, experiences severe pain after working one day a week as a cook at a convenience store (R. at 345), and experienced severe pain after she tried to shovel snow and manure once (R. at 251) and no longer handles the family finances (Doc. 12 at 16; R. at 368). These activities are limited or sporadic at best, which the Seventh Circuit has already held does not mean a claimant is capable of full time employment. (R. 420-21).

On remand, the matter was assigned to ALJ Alice Jordan, who held a hearing on February 22, 2007, where Lawrence and VE Paprocki both testified. (R. 666-710). ALJ Jordan denied Lawrence's claim on March 28, 2007. (R. 428). ALJ Jordan found that Lawrence had fibromyalgia, depression/ cognitive deficits, endometriosis, chronic low back pain, and shoulder problems, but that while these impairments were "severe", they did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments. (R. 429). ALJ Jordan concluded that Lawrence's allegations regarding her limitations were not credible because she appeared in the courtroom "as a very confident, in-control individual that has no apparent problems answering questions, giving detailed medical and work histories, and appearing comfortable." (R. 435). ALJ Jordan noted that "although Dr. Miniter's diagnosis of fibromyalgia has been confirmed by acceptable signs and symptoms, his assessment that [Lawrence] is limited from performing virtually any work activity cannot be fully accepted" because "[he] failed to provide explanations for these limitations." ALJ Jordan further commented:

[Dr. Miniter] reported good range of motion of [Lawrence's] joints, and he found no swelling or tenderness. [Dr. Miniter] has recommended exercises and increased walking only and stated that she is sleeping better and that her energy had improved.

Dr. Miniter assessed [Lawrence] as being unable to work without elevating her legs 6 to 12 inches for the entire workday (Exhibit 3F), but his office notes do not indicate that [Lawrence] had edema, swelling, or significant pain in her lower extremities (Exhibits 1F, 3F, and 7F). The assessment of [Lawrence's] ability to perform work activities by Dr. Miniter is not supported by objective medical evidence nor his office notes. The opinion that [Lawrence] is unable to perform virtually all work activities provided by Dr. Miniter cannot be afforded significant probative value. (R. 435-36).

ALJ Jordan further stated:

Although [Lawrence] has symptoms of depression and cognitive problems associated with mental problems, she does not display the degree of functional limitations ...


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