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Natalie Ann andrychowski v. Michael J. Astrue

December 1, 2011

NATALIE ANN ANDRYCHOWSKI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Natalie Andrychowski asks this Court to reverse or remand the Commissioner of Social Security's conclusion that she is not disabled. For the reasons that follow, the Court will remand the matter back to the Social Security Administration for further consideration.

I. STATEMENT OF FACTS

Before she had children, Natalie Andrychowski ("Andrychowski") worked as a phlebotomist, supervisor, and medical office assistant. She left work when her daughter was born, and then injured her back in November 2001 while lifting the baby. Since then, she has been diagnosed and/or treated for: hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, pain-related insomnia and associated daytime fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, spastic bladder syndrome, lumbar radiculopathy (nerve malfunction related to multiple herniated discs), degenerative disc disease, and sacroiliitis (inflammation of the sacroiliac joints, which connect the lower spine and pelvis). The last date on which she was insured for disability (her "DLI") was December 31, 2006; thus, the question here is whether she was legally disabled on or before that date.

The Court summarizes Andrychowski's treatment history only briefly. She had corrective back surgery following her 2001 injury. However, she reports only incomplete relief, testifying that she still suffered "lots of tightness, lots of achiness" and could not function well. In 2005, she re-herniated the same area of her lower back and began seeing Dr. Lawrence Wilkin ("Wilkin"), a neurologist. She had a second back surgery in August 2005, and showed some improvement. Shortly thereafter, though, she began a course of sacroiliac joint injections to treat her continuing lower back pain; the injections continued until May 2006.

In his August 2006 and November 2006 reports, Dr. Wilkin diagnosed Andrychowski with fibromyalgia and most of the other ailments listed above. Since his treatment began, Wilkin has prescribed Plaintiff a variety of medications, including narcotic painkillers.

Andrychowski filed for Social Security disability benefits on October 17, 2006 claiming an onset date of November 1, 2001. On December 12, Illinois Department of Human Services consultant Dr. Lynnelle Flores ("Flores") examined Plaintiff. She found that Plaintiff suffered from chronic hip and low back pain (likely due to degenerative disc disease), fibromyalgia, depression, and hypothyroidism. Flores did not discuss any possible work limitations.

Based largely on Flores' report, however, non-examining consultant Dr. Charles Kenny ("Kenny") concluded in January 2007 that Plaintiff could perform light work on or before her DLI. Plaintiff's benefit claim was denied initially and after reconsideration. She requested an administrative hearing on May 29, 2007 and received one on January 28, 2009.

In March 2008, Dr. Wilkin wrote a letter explaining Plaintiff's symptoms and opining that due to their severity she had been disabled from all gainful employment since he first treated her in 2005. He noted that she could not sit for more than twenty to thirty minutes at a stretch (or two total hours per workday), required a five to ten minute rest break per hour, and would unpredictably miss four to six work days per month. A questionnaire accompanying this letter asked the earliest date that the described symptoms and limitations applied; he filled in September 9, 2001 (four years before he began treating her and two months before her self-reported onset date).

On February 6, 2009 Administrative Law Judge John Kraybill ("ALJ Kraybill" or the "ALJ") ruled that Andrychowski was not disabled because she could still perform her prior work as a medical office assistant if she had the option to sit or stand as needed. He discussed evidence from four doctors: Dr. Wilkin, Dr. Flores, Dr. Stevens (a non-treating, non-examining medical expert), and Dr. Chaudhary (who completed an assessment of Plaintiff in 2008).

ALJ Kraybill did not discuss the records of Dr. Kenney; Dr. Nayak (a rheumatologist who examined Plaintiff in early 2005); Drs. Montella and Kuesis (orthopedic surgeons who saw her in 2004); Dr. Stadlan (the neurosurgeon who performed her second back surgery); Dr. Yourek (a psychiatrist who examined her in 2008); or Dr. Mangurten (who treated Plaintiff beginning in 2000 but whose records are largely unintelligible). The ALJ was familiar with some of these records, however, as they featured in the hearing testimony and questioning.

On December 3, 2010 the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Social Security Commissioner's final word. McKinzey v. Astrue, 641 F.3d 884, 889 (7th Cir. 2011).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The ALJ had to determine whether one or more determinable mental or physical impairments (that can be expected to last for 12 or more months) prevented Plaintiff from engaging in substantial gainful activity. To do so, he followed the five-step analysis in 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4). If a claimant ...


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