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Slaughter v. Astrue

November 5, 2010

JAMES SLAUGHTER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan H. Lefkow

OPINION AND ORDER

James Slaughter seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 423(d), and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3). Slaughter asks the court to reverse the decision of Administrative Law Judge Helen Cropper ("the ALJ"), which found him 'not disabled' under the relevant provisions of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), 1602, 1614(a)(3)(A), and to remand this case to the Commissioner for further consideration of his claims. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. This court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). For the following reasons, the court grants the Commissioner's motion [#32], denies Slaughter's motion [#22-1], and affirms the Commissioner's decision denying disability insurance benefits and SSI.

BACKGROUND

James Slaughter was born on June 2, 1955. He is single and lives with his sister on Chicago's South Side.*fn1 The highest level of education he completed successfully was the eleventh grade. Despite obtaining a commercial driver's license ("CDL") in 1999, Slaughter has never used it as a means to find employment.*fn2 According to a work history report submitted to the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), from March 1998 to September 2000, he worked as a truck driver for a food delivery company named Tiger Trade. This job was his most recent paid position.*fn3 At the May 2007 hearing, Slaughter testified that he was fired from his job at Tiger Trade in 2000 because he took too many days off work to care for his ailing mother. Slaughter tried to return to Tiger Trade in July 2001, but he was not rehired. No earnings have been reported on his Social Security records since 2000. Slaughter has not actively searched for permanent employment since the onset of his medical problems in 2002. Occasionally, Slaughter performs certain odd jobs for friends and acquaintances, but the paltry cash payments received from such work have never provided him with enough money to live independently. Since 2004, his only consistent source of income has been welfare benefits in the form of a LINK card and small welfare grant each month.*fn4 His sister works for the City of Chicago, and she is Slaughter's only non-governmental source of financial support.

Slaughter claims to suffer from a variety of medical problems, which form the basis for his applications for disability benefits and SSI. Beginning in November 2002, Slaughter started to complain of pain in his testicular area. His doctors determined that the discomfort derived from a hydrocele-a benign cyst in his scrotum-and in April 2003 he underwent successful surgery to remove the hydrocele. After the surgery, Slaughter had four follow-up medical appointments to monitor the status of his recovery. Except for complaints of erectile dysfunction (for which his doctors prescribed Viagra) and occasional pain with heavy lifting, the record shows that Slaughter recovered well. His last documented treatment for the hydrocele recovery occurred on August 18, 2003, and his physician prescribed an antibiotic and 600 mg of ibuprofen. Slaughter has not complained of any medical ailments related to the hydrocele operation, and he experienced no residual limitations from the hydrocele.*fn5 Although Slaughter made frequent medical visits immediately before and after the operation, excluding that three-week period, Slaughter has sought medical attention, on average, less than once per month from February 2003 to May 2007.*fn6

In March 2004, Slaughter began to complain of intermittent fainting spells, headaches, and occasional lightheadedness. The precise cause of the fainting spells was never determined by treating physicians, but the record indicates that these mysterious episodes had vanished by 2005.*fn7 Diagnostic studies and neurological treatment led his doctors to rule out a seizure disorder and other severe impairments as the cause of these fainting episodes. According to the record, Slaughter has not complained of any recurrence of these spells since early 2004.

The most substantial changes in Slaughter's medical condition since 2005 concern his complaints of right-shoulder pain and abnormal sensations of numbness in his left arm and leg. Between June 2005 and April 2007, Slaughter was examined by multiple physicians who evaluated the range-of-motion problems in his arms and prescribed over-the-counter ibuprofen for pain management. Slaughter's complaints and clinical exam results were not consistent over time. Although one radiologist opined that Slaughter was experiencing "degenerative osteoarthritic changes," particularly in his right shoulder, AR 470, other medical tests evaluating Slaughter's orthopedic and neurological functions were essentially normal and ruled out serious impairments that might have contributed to his symptoms.*fn8 Objective medical evidence also did not establish a medically determinable impairment that would limit significantly Slaughter's ability to stand or walk. Neurological testing failed to pinpoint a definitive physiological explanation for the left-sided numbness, and Slaughter's treating neurologist described the test results of an August 2006 MRI as "normal."*fn9 AR 550. Despite complaining of ongoing numbness and shoulder pain between 2005 and 2007, Slaughter's prescription records show that he only filled three prescriptions for ibuprofen pain medication between April 2005 and April 2007.*fn10

Additionally, Slaughter has been treated for hypertension and high cholesterol, which stem partly from his mild obesity.*fn11 Slaughter's physicians have prescribed hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ), Lipitor and Norvasc to control his elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Medical records reveal that his blood pressure has remained at a normal and relatively stable level since 2005. Despite Slaughter's obesity, he has no documented period of ineffective ambulation. Nor does he allege any other significant limitations caused by or related to the obesity.

Finally, the record indicates that Slaughter has had problems with alcohol abuse. Slaughter has candidly acknowledged his frequent alcohol consumption, although he denies he has a drinking problem. During a consultative psychiatric examination in February 2007, Dr. Ana Gil wrote that Slaughter reported he typically drank beer three times a week and a pint of hard liquor every two months. Given Slaughter's history of consistent alcohol use, which included blackouts, delirium tremens, a D.U.I., a brief stint in jail for domestic violence, and the fact that his longest consecutive period of full sobriety was only two months, Dr. Gil diagnosed alcohol dependence and abuse in early remission. She also noted that Slaughter had virtually no insight into his drinking habits. Slaughter testified that his ability to function on a daily basis is not affected by his moderate and habitual alcohol consumption. Taking Slaughter's entire medical record from 2003 to 2007 into consideration, the ALJ ruled that Slaughter has no impairment (physical or mental) or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

The procedural posture of this case spans several years. Slaughter filed his concurrent applications for disability insurance benefits and SSI for the first time on March 28, 2003. Slaughter identifies December 31, 2000 as the alleged onset date ("AOD") of his disability, and he identifies his date last insured ("DLI") as December 31, 2002.*fn12 On June 25, 2003, the Commissioner denied Slaughter's applications, and on August 19, 2003, the applications were denied again on reconsideration. The ALJ held a hearing on Slaughter's claims on June 28, 2005. During the hearing, Slaughter represented himself. On July 7, 2005, the ALJ issued a ruling upholding the Commissioner's denial of Title II benefits and Title XVI SSI. After the unfavorable decision, Slaughter filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Slaughter's request on August 18, 2005, thus making the ALJ's denial the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 405.372.

Slaughter filed this action on December 28, 2005. Citing chiefly Slaughter's lack of legal representation and the insufficient amount of time the ALJ had to review his medical files before the June 28, 2005 hearing, Judge James B. Moran of this court remanded the case for more extensive development of the record. Slaughter v. Barnhart, No. 05-C-5988, 2006 WL 2506215 (N.D. Ill. July 21, 2006). On August 4, 2006, Slaughter filed another set of applications for benefits. These applications were consolidated and adjudicated with the remanded claims.

After the remand, the ALJ obtained and reviewed all medical records relevant to Slaughter's alleged disability claims. On May 1, 2007, she held a second hearing on Slaughter's claims, during which Slaughter was represented by legal counsel. Based on the more fully developed record, which included a substantial amount of medical evidence that was not before the ALJ in 2005, the ALJ issued another unfavorable decision on October 9, 2007. On April 19, 2008, the Appeals Council denied Slaughter's request for review of this most recent decision, leaving the ALJ's October 9, 2007 opinion the final ruling of the Commissioner. For the second time, Slaughter has appealed the Commissioner's final ruling to this court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

LEGAL STANDARD

The administrative law judge's opinion on a claimant's disability must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 639 (7th Cir. 1987) (quoting Smith v. Schweiker, 735 F.2d 267, 270 (7th Cir. 1984)).*fn13 "Substantial evidence" has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Aidinovski v. Apfel, 27 F. Supp. 2d 1097, 1101 (N.D. Ill. 1998) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed. 2d 842 (1971)). The court may not reweigh the evidence. Walker, 834 F.2d at 640. "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the Secretary*fn14 (or the Secretary's designee, the ALJ)." Id. (citing, inter alia, Delgado v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 79, 82-83 (7th Cir. 1986)). "Therefore, the question presented for review is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but only whether the ALJ's finding of non-disability is supported by substantial evidence in the record." Walker, 834 F.2d at 640. Finally, the ALJ must articulate her assessment of the evidence and the basis for her conclusion in order to "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the ...


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