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Pierce v. Astrue

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

February 14, 2012

Robert D. PIERCE, Plaintiff,
Michael J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

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Barry A. Schultz, Cody Marvin, Law Offices of Barry A. Schultz, P.C., Evanston, IL, for Plaintiff.

Harpreet K. Chahal, Assistant United States Attorney, Chicago, IL, David Levitt, Assistant Regional Counsel, Social Security Administration, Chicago, IL, for Defendant.


MORTON DENLOW, United States Magistrate Judge.

Claimant Robert Pierce (" Plaintiff" or " Claimant" ) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking reversal or remand of the decision by Defendant Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security (" Defendant" or " Commissioner" ), denying Claimant's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (" DIB" ) by finding Claimant not disabled through Claimant's date last insured date, but finding Claimant disabled beginning after that date. Claimant raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ erred in not soliciting medical expert testimony to infer the onset date of disability pursuant to SSR 83-20 and to determine whether Claimant's impairments in combination medically equaled a listed impairment; and (2) whether the ALJ properly evaluated the credibility of Claimant's testimony. For the following reasons, the Court grants Claimant's motion for summary judgment to reverse and remand the decision of the Commissioner, denies the Commissioner's motion to affirm the Commissioner's decision, and remands the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


A. Procedural History

Claimant initially applied for DIB and Supplemental Security Income (" SSI" ) on December 11, 2006, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2006. R. 182-86,

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187-89. The Social Security Administrator (" SSA" ) denied his applications on February 15, 2007. R. 112-15. Claimant then filed a request for reconsideration, which the SSA denied on July 20, 2007. 123-25, 129-33. Shortly thereafter, Claimant requested a hearing before an ALJ. R. 135-36..

On October 23, 2008, Administrative Law Judge Helen Cropper (" ALJ" ) presided over a hearing at which Claimant appeared with his attorney, Matthew Edwards. R. 94. In addition to Claimant, Dr. Elise Torczynski, a medical expert (ophthalmologist), and Frank Mendrick, a vocational expert, also testified. On April 16, 2009, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding (1) Claimant not disabled through December 31, 2007, his date last insured for DIB under the Social Security Act; and (2) Claimant disabled as of February 1, 2008 through the date of the hearing for purposes of SSI. R. 88-108. This decision effectively approved Claimant for SSI but denied his application for DIB.

Claimant then filed for review of the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. R. 84-87. On December 17, 2009, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 1-3. Claimant subsequently filed this action for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

B. Hearing Testimony— October 23, 2008

1. Robert D. Pierce— Claimant

At the time of the hearing, Claimant was thirty-seven years old and single. R. 10-11. Claimant completed education through the twelfth grade and later earned a certificate in electrical maintenance. R. 12. Claimant's most recent employment as an apartment building janitor ended in June 2006 when he was laid off for reasons unrelated to his disability. R. 13-15. He did not experience any trouble performing duties such as cutting the grass, pulling garbage, mopping and vacuuming hallways, and cleaning laundry rooms. R. 14. Claimant received unemployment and looked for a janitorial job for approximately six months thereafter. R. 15-16. Claimant's prior work experience included hotel housekeeping, laundry sorting, and unarmed security guard positions. R. 16-20.

Claimant is diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease which causes the growth of clumps of inflammatory cells throughout the body.[1] R. 21-40. Claimant's symptoms related to sarcoidosis include: periodic painful swelling of the joints in his hands and knees; swelling and damage to his eyes that has decreased his vision; reduced lung capacity; and skin disorders. R. 21-27. Claimant testified that after performing basic daily tasks (dressing and bathing) it is difficult to bend his fingers. R. 35. On a typical day, he goes walking to try to find work and try and get himself back in shape. R. 29.

On a scale of one to ten, Claimant rated the pain in his fingers as a 5/10 after bathing and dressing himself and the pain in his eyes as an 8/10, noting that it is hard for him to focus visually. R. 35. When he must visually focus on one thing for an hour, he gets dizzy and has headaches. R.

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35-36. He has headaches approximately every other day which last for two to three hours and require him to lie down. R. 36-37.

Claimant stated that he can walk between half a block and a block comfortably, he can stand for twenty to twenty-five minutes without walking around, he can sit for twenty to thirty minutes before his knees ache and he then needs to stretch for fifteen to twenty minutes. R. 31-32. He estimated he could lift around forty-five to fifty pounds, but not at a fast pace. R. 31, 33. Claimant testified that he does his own cooking, dishes, and laundry, and is able to bathe and care for himself, but afterwards the joints in his fingers cause pain. R. 30, 32.

His medications at the time of the hearing included prescription eye drops, pills, creams, and inhalers to reduce swelling. He claims his condition has deteriorated since 2006 both in terms of his vision, joint pain, and problems with his lungs. R. 38-40. He testified that his hands were not swollen when he saw a state agency doctor. R. 40. Although he had gone to the University of Illinois at Chicago hospital in 2006, his " money ran out" after he lost his last job, and he believes he began going to free clinics in late 2006. R. 44.

2. Dr. Elise Torczynski— Medical Expert (" ME" )

Dr. Elise Torczynski, an ophthalmologist, testified as a medical expert. The ME stated that although Claimant suffers from impairments, he does not qualify for any listings. R. 48-49. She explained that Claimant suffers from " chronic inflammation in his eye" and has " clumps of inflammatory cells on the back of the cornea, and then flare is associated with that." Claimant also has mild cataracts. R. 49.

The ME testified that under listing § 2.02, Impairment of Visual Acuity, Claimant's visual acuity in his better eye— his right eye— was 20/100 based on records of a January 2008 eye exam, which " lists in the ratings as 50 percent," while " the standard is 20 percent so he has not dropped to the standard." R. 48, 54-55. She also noted that under listing § 2.03, Contraction of Peripheral Visual Fields in the Better Eye, the medical records " indicate that he has limitation in vision in his right eye, but he doesn't totally meet that standard ... [because t]here's no indication in the report that he has any limitation on his visual field." R. 48-49. Finally, the ME noted that listing § 2.04, Loss of Visual Efficiency, is computed based on 2.02 and 2.03, which Claimant did not meet. R. 49.

While reviewing Claimant's available medical history and questioning Claimant, the ME expressed surprise that Claimant did not receive more medical attention for his eye condition and stated that, Claimant has " been casual about taking care of his eyes." R. 45-46, 50.

The ME refused to answer any questions about Claimant's other sarcoidosis symptoms, stating " I'm not prepared to answer anything about his joints ... or his lungs" because those topics are outside her field of expertise. R. 54. The ME acknowledged that headaches are possible symptoms of sarcoidosis affecting other organs of the body, including the brain. R. 51, 55. The ME speculated that she would expect Claimant's visual acuity to improve with better medical treatment, though noted it is difficult to predict. R. 59, 62. The ME classified Claimant's residual functional capacity (" RFC" ) as light to medium, but clarified that her opinion only referred to Claimant's eyes, and did not take " into account the x-rays or the lungs or the joint pain," because that is outside her expertise R. 60-63.

As far as appropriate limitations identified by the ME, the Claimant should not work at a computer for eight hours per

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day or work with microscopes, and he would have difficulties with jobs that require extensive reading. R. 60-61.

3. Mr. Frank Mendrick— Vocational Expert (" VE" )

Frank Mendrick testified as a vocational expert. The VE described Claimant's past work, classifying (1) his janitorial work as semi-skilled, medium work; (2) his housekeeping work as unskilled, medium work; (3) his laundry work as unskilled light or medium work; and (4) his unarmed security guard work as unskilled, light work. R. 67-68.

The ALJ asked the VE whether a thirty-seven year old individual with a high school education and the same past relevant work experience as Claimant who has the RFC to perform work at the light exertional level but with no distance vision requirement, no exposure to cold, respiratory irritants, or hazardous equipment, and no need to climb ladders or work on unstable surfaces, could perform Claimant's past relevant work. R. 69. The VE responded that the hypothetical person could not perform the janitorial or housekeeping work, but could perform the laundry or unarmed security guard work. R. 70. The VE then listed other occupations the person could perform at the light level, including 5,000 office cleaner positions, 3,500 inspection positions, and 5,000 hand labor positions in the Chicago metropolitan area. R. 71.

For a similar hypothetical person, but further restricted to only sedentary work, the VE stated that some jobs existed in the economy, although the person could not perform any of Claimant's past relevant work. R. 70. The VE listed 3,500 assembly positions, 1,200 inspection positions, and 2,000 hand ...

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