The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joe Billy McDADE United States Senior District Judge
E-FILED Monday, 13 June, 2011 09:49:58 AM Clerk, U.S. District Court, ILCD
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 6) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 7 & 8). For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 6) is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (Doc. 7) is GRANTED.
Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") on May 21, 2008, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2001. Her application was denied on August 1, 2008. (Doc. 4 at 55). Plaintiff filed for reconsideration of the denial, which was subsequently affirmed on September 19, 2008. (Doc. 4 at 56). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on December 10, 2008. (Doc. 4 at 55-56). This hearing took place before ALJ Shreese M. Wilson on February 11, 2010, where Plaintiff, who was represented by an attorney, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. (Doc. 4 at 21-54).
After the hearing, ALJ Wilson issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined by the Act, because prior to her date last insured of December 31, 2004, she did not have a "severe" impairment - that is, a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that "significantly limit[ed] her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) (providing that if a claimant does not have a "severe" impairment, the Agency will deny her claim at step two without considering her age, education, or work experience).*fn1
Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 4 at 70-71). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") in this case. (Doc. 4 at 1-4, 11-16). On October 14, 2010, Plaintiff filed the instant action in this Court (Doc. 1) seeking review of the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g). On March 14, 2011, Plaintiff filed her Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 6) and on April 28, 2011, Defendant filed its Motion for Summary Affirmance and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 7 & 8).
II. Relevant Medical History
In September 1997, Plaintiff was experiencing lower back pain, which had worsened over the last two months. (Doc. 4 at 15, 213). A computed tomography (CT) scan taken at that time showed a disc herniation. (Doc. 4 at 370). Plaintiff underwent corrective surgery and nerve root decompression performed by Dr. Cram in September 1997. (Doc. 4 at 218-19). Post-operatively, an MRI study showed only moderate loss of disc space height at L4-L5. (Doc. 4 at 369).
Shortly after the surgery, Plaintiff began to experience leg pain to the extent that she felt like she was unable to walk and at times experienced some numbness. (Doc. 4 at 219). Dr. Cram's notes taken after the surgery show steady improvement and Plaintiff exhibited an eagerness to walk without an ankle brace. (Doc. 4 at 220-22). Plaintiff's leg was feeling stronger and she decided that she was able to walk without the brace from October 1997 through December 1997. (Doc. 4 at 220-21). She was advised to continue ankle strength conditioning exercises. (Doc. 4 at 222-23). After seeing Plaintiff on January 23, 1998, Dr. Cram noted that Plaintiff had began to experience some back discomfort. (Doc. 4 at 221). By April 1998, Dr. Cram advised Plaintiff that an ankle brace was needed "for a number of months." (Doc. 4 at 224).
According to the medical records, Plaintiff had no further medical issues until April 2001, three years later, when she complained of a "two-week history" of waking up with low back and right leg pain. (Doc. 4 at 227). However, an MRI taken during that time showed no significant changes. (Doc. 4 at 227). By June 2001, Plaintiff stated that she felt really "good" with no back or leg pain; she demonstrated good flexion, and was once again advised to continue daily exercises for an indefinite period. (Doc. 4 at 227). During the time period between June 2001 and the date last insured, Plaintiff had stopped seeking medical attention for her back and leg, noting the death of her primary physician (Dr. Cram) and her financial situation. (Doc. 4 at 44-45).
Throughout 2003, Plaintiff also complained of coughing and chest congestion and on December 10, 2003, Dr. Sidler (Plaintiff's new primary physician) noted that Plaintiff's cough was "better." (Doc. 4 at 230). At this point, Dr. Sidler advised Plaintiff to quit smoking. (Doc. 4 at 230). Dr. Sidler continued to treat Plaintiff throughout 2004 for coughing and chest congestion. (Doc. 4 at 229-30).
On February 11, 2010, ALJ Wilson held a hearing on Plaintiff's application for benefits, at which Plaintiff was represented by Attorney Susan O' Neal. (Doc. 4 at 68). At this hearing, Plaintiff testified that she was unable to work after 2000 due to it being "more than she could handle." (Doc. 4 at 32). Plaintiff testified that she was instructed to get a permanent ankle brace in 2000, but she "was determined to do it without it." (Doc. 4 at 34).
Plaintiff testified that prior to discontinuing her employment in 2001, she worked as a seamstress at a uniform shop. (Doc. 4 at 31). At this position, Plaintiff helped out the seamstress, and would assist customers. (Doc. 4 at 31). Plaintiff was only able to work part-time and testified that "it was a very low-key store and not ...