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Green v. Astrue

June 18, 2010

WILLIE E. GREEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Geraldine Soat Brown United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Willie E. Green brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. 423 et seq. (the "Act"). (Compl.) [Dkt 1.] Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment [dkt 20] and a supporting memorandum seeking an order reversing the Commissioner's final decision and entering a finding of disability and award of benefits or remanding for further administrative proceedings. ("Pl.'s Mem.") [Dkt 22.] The Commissioner has filed a brief opposing the motion ("Def.'s Mem.") [dkt 26], and Plaintiff has replied in further support of his motion. ("Pl.'s Reply.") [Dkt 27.] The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Dkt 11.] The decision of this court therefore constitutes the final ruling on this matter. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is granted, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff first applied for benefits on April 10, 2006. (R. 110.) His claim was denied initially on June 15, 2006 and again upon reconsideration on August 23, 2006. (R. 71-74.) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was held on January 10, 2008. (R. 6-70.) The ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's request for benefits on February 26, 2008. (R. 75-85). The Appeals Council declined Plaintiff's request for review on July 17, 2008 (R. 1-3), thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was 55 years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ. (R. 84.) He is single and has sole custody of his daughter who was then three years old. (R. 10.) He and his daughter live in a room that they rent from a family friend who owns a house in the Village of Dixmoor. (R. 10-11.) Plaintiff's highest level of education is a GED. (R. 12.) Though Plaintiff had not worked in the several months preceding the hearing, he had previously worked from 1995 through 2004 as a dishwasher, political fund-raiser, chemical mixer and forklift driver, and a laborer for the Village of Dixmoor. (R. 128, 166, 191, 200.) Before that, he suffered from an alcohol and drug addiction. (R. 191.) He testified during the hearing that his last full time work was in March 2004 for the Village of Dixmoor. (R. 12.) He also had done scrap metal recycling around that time. (R. 23-24.) At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff's most recent work had been self-employment doing landscaping in his neighborhood. (R. 13.) With the exception of his self-employment, Plaintiff's past work is classified under the Social Security Regulations (the "Regulations") in the "medium" exertional category. (R. 56.)

Medical History

Plaintiff alleges that he became disabled on May 1, 2002. (R. 161.) He bases his claim of disability on his status following bone fusions in both wrists, a skin condition on his right hand and nerve damage in his left wrist from a dog bite. (R. 165.) He is right-handed. (R. 11.) He testified at the hearing about unpredictability in the functioning of his wrists and fingers, and pain flare-ups caused by certain movements or repeated usage of his wrists. (R. 32-33.)

While Plaintiff worked as a mixer and metal processor, from around 1996 to 2002, he had several work-related injuries to his hands and wrists. (R. 228-300.) He was treated repeatedly for wrist pain, and diagnosed as early as 1997 with osteoarthritis in his wrists. (R. 243, 337, 342.) He was also diagnosed with chronic eczema "likely related to handling of material from an irritant dermatitis" and referred to a dermatologist. (R. 249, 254.) This condition causes pitting in his hands as well as a tendency towards infection. (R. 221, 253-254, 256, 312.) In 2002, the dermatologist restricted Plaintiff's exposure to chemicals, and prescribed him antibiotics and pain medicine. (R. 313-317.) Although the surgery reports were not submitted, it appears from other records that Plaintiff underwent right wrist surgery in 1998 and left wrist surgery in 1999. (R. 241, 333-334, 343.)

Plaintiff submitted no medical records with his initial application for benefits, and he had no primary care physician at the time. (R. 163, 324-325.) At the request of the state agency, Plaintiff was evaluated on May 31, 2006 by Dr. Stanley Rabinowitz of Midwest Medical Providers. (R. 304-307.) No medical records were available for Dr. Rabinowitz to review (R. 304), although records were ultimately submitted to the state agency. (R. 227-361.) Upon examination, Dr. Rabinowitz concluded that Plaintiff had bilateral wrist injuries with bilateral arthrodeses (or surgical joint immobilization), persistent wrist pain, a recent uncomplicated left wrist dog bite, and dermatitis greater on the right hand than the left. (R. 307.) He observed thickened areas of increased pigmentation and raised skin on the palmar surface of the right hand and to a lesser extent the left hand, although there was no sign of ulceration or infection. (Id.) Range of motion testing performed by Dr. Rabinowitz found that Plaintiff had 15 degrees dorsiflexion (upwards) and 5 degrees palmar flexion on both wrists. (R. 306.) Plaintiff's left hand tested normally for grip strength and digital dexterity, and Plaintiff's right hand tested at 70% grip strength and mildly impaired in digital dexterity. (R. 306.)

On June 8, 2006, Dr. Virgilio Pilapil, a state agency consultant, reviewed the medical records and completed a physical residual functional capacity assessment form regarding Plaintiff. (R. 318-325.) Dr. Pilapil opined, based on a review of the records then available, that Plaintiff could occasionally lift and/or carry 50 pounds, frequently lift or carry 25 pounds, stand and/or walk about six hours in an eight-hour day, sit about six hours in an eight-hour day, push and/or pull occasionally with both upper extremities, operate hand controls with his left hand with no limitation and operate hand controls with his right hand only frequently. (R. 318-319.) Dr. Pilapil noted Plaintiff was limited in his ability to perform gross manipulation (i.e., handling) as well as fine manipulation (i.e., fingering) based on Plaintiff's history of multiple wrist surgeries, decreased range of motion in both wrists and reduced grip strength in the right hand. (R. 321.)

Plaintiff began seeing Dr. Marshall James on October 4, 2006 and saw him several times over the next year. (R. 355-361.) Dr. James found that Plaintiff had a limited range of motion in both wrists and a scaly rash on his hands. (R. 360-361.) He referred Plaintiff to orthopedics as well as to dermatology for additional treatment. (Id.) Plaintiff underwent x-rays of his wrists in February 2007. (R. 353-354.) The x-ray report notes that Plaintiff had significant degenerative changes of the radial ulnar and carpal joints with joint space narrowing, subchondral sclerosis (or hardening of the tissue beneath the cartilage), subchondral cyst formation and fusion of the carpal bones. (R. 353-354.) In March 2007, Dr. James diagnosed Plaintiff with degenerative joint disease and prescribed pain medication for him. (R. 358.) On April 30, 2007, Dr. James further diagnosed Plaintiff with osteoarthritis in both wrists and prescribed pain medicine for him. (R. 356.) In August, 2007, Dr. James observed increased tenderness and decreased range of motion in Plaintiff's wrists and again prescribed pain medicine for him. (R. 355.)

On March 28, 2007, Dr. James completed an evaluation form regarding Plaintiff. (R. 349-352.) He diagnosed Plaintiff with severe osteoarthritis of both hands and wrists, right greater than left, referring to the x-rays demonstrating significant degenerative changes of many joints in the wrists and fusion of all carpal bones. (R. 349.) He concluded among other things that Plaintiff needed complete freedom to rest without restrictions, that he could sit for one hour on a sustained basis and stand/walk for two hours on a sustained basis, and although he could lift occasionally up to 10 pounds, he could not grasp or perform fine manipulation with either hand or perform pushing or pulling with the right hand. (R. 351-352.)

Plaintiff's Testimony

Plaintiff testified at the hearing that he had lost one-third of the movement in both of his wrists and that he suffers from two types of wrist pain. (R. 32, 41.) He explained that his right wrist aches with pressure and burning inside, while his left wrists hurts with shooting pain, especially with certain movements. (R. 41.) He described his arthritis, bone fusions and silicone injections in each of his wrists. (R. 15.) Plaintiff testified that he suffered additional damage to his left wrist from a dog bite and that he had a bone removed in his right wrist where the ligament was too torn to hold it in place. (R. 15.) He wears prescription splints sometimes, but he prefers to wears ace bandages to help support his wrists. (R. 39-40.) He testified that his surgeon gave him a permanent weight restriction of 10 pounds and instructions not to engage in repetitive wrist tasks like lifting or bending.

(R. 38.) He takes ibuprofen, blood pressure medication, and prescription pain medication as needed.

(R. 43.) He is cautious with narcotic medicines because of his history of alcohol dependence. (R. 44-45.)

Plaintiff also testified that he has problems with his fingers. (R. 32.) He sometimes has problems turning a key or picking small items up. (R. 31-33.) He explained that there are things that he can do with one hand that he can not do with the other because his fingers "sometime . . . work, sometime . . . don't." (R. 32, 33.) He has dermatitis in both hands, which requires him to regularly soak his hands and scrape off dead skin. (R. 34-35.) His hands are pitted, and he applies Vaseline regularly to try to prevent cracking and infections. (R. 46.) He has not held full-time employment in several years, explaining that he fears further damage to his wrists and hands that either could not be repaired or that he could not afford to have repaired. (R. 36-39.)

Plaintiff rents a room in a home owned by a family friend. (R. 10-11.) He testified that the homeowner performs most of the cleaning in the home but that he cares for his own personal needs including doing laundry and cooking for himself and his daughter and tidying up their room. (R. 16-18.) He testified that he can wash the dishes "with care" because he never knows if his wrists are going to give out or whether his pain will increase. (R. 17.) Although he takes out the garbage, he testified that he does not let it get too heavy. (R. 18.) According to Plaintiff, he is able to pour a gallon gasoline jug into a lawn mower and mow the lawn, although he must take breaks in order to rub his wrists when they ache. (R. 20, 36.)

Plaintiff further testified at the hearing that he does not have problems sitting for extended periods of time but that he has difficulty standing and walking for any length of time because he has a cracked bone in his thigh from an injury received in the Army. (R. 12, 28.) He is able to purchase groceries at a local store, but it is too far to walk so ...


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