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Williamson v. Astrue

July 16, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim


Before the court is Ora Williamson's motion for summary judgment challenging a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1382c, for the period from September 8, 1995, through January 2, 2001. Williamson is currently receiving SSI based on the Commissioner's previous finding that beginning on January 2, 2001, Williamson was disabled by depression. In the current motion, Williamson argues that she was disabled as early as September 8, 1995, and at least by December 31, 1999 (her date last insured), by a combination of carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, and depression. She seeks back payments of DIB and SSI beginning in September 1995. For the following reasons, Williamson's motion is denied:

Procedural History

Williamson's claims have followed a long procedural path that has now stretched into its fifteenth year. Williamson first applied for DIB and SSI in January 1996, claiming that she was disabled as of September 8, 1995, by carpal tunnel syndrome and high blood pressure. (A.R. 127-29, 139.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her claim initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 96-97.) Williamson then requested, and was granted, a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). On November 17, 1998, ALJ James A. Horn issued a decision concluding that Williamson was not disabled. (Id. at 101-07.) He found that she suffered from a "severe history of carpal tunnel syndrome and hypertension," but he considered her complaints of pain to be "far out of proportion" to objective clinical findings. (Id. at 106-07.) After Williamson sought review, the SSA's Appeals Council vacated the decision and remanded the case because it concluded that Judge Horn had inadequately evaluated the opinion of Williamson's treating physician regarding the limitations caused by her carpal tunnel syndrome. (Id. at 124-26.)

In response to the Appeals Council's decision, in August 2000 Judge Horn remanded Williamson's case to the Illinois State Agency to further evaluate her carpal tunnel syndrome and to consider new evidence that Williamson was suffering from depression. (A.R. 421-22.) On remand, the agency considered Williamson's complaints of carpel tunnel syndrome, chest pain, hypertension, and depression, but concluded that those impairments did not render her disabled. (Id. at 435.)

Williamson again sought a hearing on her claims, and this time her case was heard by ALJ Kenneth E. Stewart. (A.R. 659.) In December 2001, Judge Stewart issued a decision that was partly favorable to Williamson. (Id. at 428-34.) He determined that beginning on January 2, 2001, Williamson met the listing criteria for depression. (Id. at 432.) But Judge Stewart found that neither Williamson's depression nor any of her physical impairments were sufficiently severe before January 2001 to have prevented her from performing her past relevant work. (Id. at 433.) Accordingly, Judge Stewart determined that Williamson was not disabled as of December 31, 1999-her date last insured-and therefore is not eligible for DIB. He concluded that she is entitled to SSI, but only for the period beginning after January 2, 2001. (Id. at 433-34.)

Williamson appealed and argued that Judge Stewart erroneously concluded that she was not disabled before January 2, 2001. (A.R. 444.) This time the Appeals Council vacated the decision only with respect to the issue of disability before January 2001. (Id. at 446-48.) The Appeals Council remanded the case for the ALJ to explain the weight he gave to the opinion of treating physician Dr. Rhea Craigin, to evaluate the opinion of treating physician Dr. Daniel Torres, and to provide a function-by-function analysis of Williamson's residual functional capacity ("RFC") from September 1995 through January 2001. (Id. at 446-47.)

On remand Williamson's claims were transferred from the SSA's Oak Brook office to the Chicago office, and accordingly, they were heard by yet another ALJ, Judge Helen Cropper. (A.R. 712.) On January 28, 2005, Judge Cropper issued a 38-page decision concluding that Williamson was not disabled before January 2, 2001. (Id. at 36-73.) Williamson appealed, but this time the Appeals Council denied review, (id. at 10-14), making Judge Cropper's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, see Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Williamson then filed the current suit seeking judicial review of the 2005 decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to this court's jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).


The substantial administrative record in this case covers the period from 1995 through 2005, but because the relevant question is whether Williamson was disabled before January 2, 2001, the post-2001 evidence is relevant only to the extent that it sheds light on her condition before that date. Williamson claims that her disability began on September 8, 1995, when at the age of 48 she left her job as an assembly-line worker at a company called Reflector Hardware. (A.R. 724, 729, 732.) She claims that she was forced to stop working based on a combination of carpel tunnel syndrome and back pain, and that beginning around 1998, she was disabled by depression. (Id. at 743, 746, 755.) At her 2003 hearing before an ALJ, Williamson provided both documentary and testimonial evidence in support of her claims.

A. Williamson's Evidence

The bulk of Williamson's evidence from the period between September 1995 and February 2000 relates to her carpal tunnel syndrome. Williamson testified that she could not work after she left her assembly line job at Reflector Hardware in 1995 because she was experiencing pain from her fingers to her shoulders. (A.R. 743.) She testified that in the years that followed the pain increased and she often woke up in the mornings feeling numbness in her hands. (Id. at 744.) Williamson said that the numbness and tingling pain was in her fingers and the top of her hands, rather than the palms, and that the pain was worse in her left hand. (Id. at 747.) She explained that she had wrist surgery in June 1996 and that afterward her surgeon told her not to go back to her previous work. (Id. at 746.) According to Williamson, the surgery "didn't do any good." (Id. at 752.) Williamson testified that since 1995 she would feel pain in her hands if she lifted anything as heavy as a gallon of milk. (Id. at 770.) She testified that she takes Ibuprofen for her hand pain and that a doctor had prescribed a pain medication (she did not identify it by name) that she takes "sometimes." (Id. at 777.)

Williamson also submitted documentary evidence in support of her claim that her carpal tunnel syndrome was disabling as early as the fall of 1995. She submitted medical records completed by Dr. Judd Jenson (a neurologist), Dr. Michael Bednar (a hand specialist), and Williamson's primary care physician, Dr. Craigin, who separately reported in late 1995 and early 1996 that Williamson suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome that was worse on her left side. (Id. at 211, 222, 250-51.) Dr. Bednar recommended surgery, (id. at 222), which was performed in June 1996, (id. at 253). Just before the surgery, in May 1996 a medical consultant, Dr. Douglas M. Grover, completed an RFC assessment in which he opined that Williamson could sit, stand, or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day, but that she was limited in handling and fingering. (Id. at 164-65.)

After undergoing carpal tunnel surgery, Williamson completed a disability report in which she stated that she felt improvement initially following the surgery, but that her condition had again worsened and she had trouble gripping or picking things up. (A.R. 172.) In January 1997 she was examined by Dr. Rodney Shainis, who reported that Williamson "appeared well" in general and that her right wrist appeared normal, although she had swelling and decreased extension in her left wrist. (Id. at 275.) Dr. Shainis diagnosed "bilateral hand pain which may or may not represent carpal tunnel syndrome." (Id.) That same month, a second medical consultant, Dr. Robert T. Patey, completed an RFC assessment agreeing with ...

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