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Russell Aarn Morgan v. Michael J. Astrue

April 2, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior U.S District Court Judge George W. Lindberg


Plaintiff Russell A. Morgan has filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by defendant Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the Commissioner), denying plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability benefits (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI). Plaintiff and the Commissioner have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's [22] motion is granted and plaintiff's motion [14] is denied.

On May 21, 2004, plaintiff was admitted to a hospital with complaints of numbness in the left side of his body. He was noted to have a medical history of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and past subdural hematoma. An MRI showed plaintiff had suffered an acute right thalamic stroke.

On November 24, 2004, plaintiff began treatment with Dr. Nitin Nadkarni (Dr. Nadkarni), a neurologist. Dr. Nadkarni confirmed that the May 21, 2004, MRI indicated plaintiff had suffered a hemispheric lacunar stroke. On June 28, 2006, Dr. Nadkarni examined plaintiff for complaints related to his thalamic stroke and polemic pain syndrome. At this time, plaintiff informed Dr. Nadkarni that he was uninsured and could not afford further treatment, and Dr. Nadkarni referred plaintiff to a pain clinic. Dr. Nadkarni declined to complete Social Security disability paper work for plaintiff.

On April 28, 2008, Dr. Bruce Bernheim (Dr. Bernheim) examined plaintiff for the first time. One week later, he completed a functional capacity assessment for plaintiff, which found plaintiff unable to perform even sedentary work.

In June 2008, Dr. Scott Kale (Dr. Kale) performed a consultative examination of plaintiff at the request of the Commissioner. Plaintiff's fine motion capability was reduced for his left hand, but was normal for his right hand. Plaintiff's cervical spine, shoulder, elbow, wrist and finger motion were normal, but his lumbar spine range of motion was somewhat reduced. At this time, plaintiff did not suffer from any cognitive abnormalities. Dr. Kale diagnosed plaintiff as suffering from poorly controlled diabetes, history of neuropathy in the hands and feet, history of right thalamic stroke with mild upper and lower extremity weakness, uncontrolled hypertension, and poor vision.

In March 2009, Dr. Prashanthi Boppana (Dr. Boppana) examined plaintiff for the first time, and completed a Bilateral Manual Dexterity Impairment Questionnaire, which indicated significant functional limitations. Dr. Boppana diagnosed plaintiff with constant neuropathic pain and left-sided weakness and numbness. He opined that plaintiff could never lift any weight with his left hand. Dr. Boppana also indicated that plaintiff was essentially precluded from using both the left and right upper extremities for grasping, reaching, and fine manipulations. Dr. Boppana further found that plaintiff had several other limitations, including various psychological problems, and the need to avoid wetness, temperature extremes, fumes, gases, dust, heights, pushing or pulling, and kneeling or bending.

In October 2009, Dr. Boppana reiterated these functional limitations, and opined that plaintiff could sit or stand for no more than one hour in an eight-hour workday.

On April 9, 2008, plaintiff, a high school graduate born in 1956, filed an application for SSD and SSI benefits under sections 216(i), 223(d) and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423 (Act). Plaintiff alleged that he had been disabled since May 1, 2004, and had a combination of physical and mental impairments.

After his application was denied, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Act because he retained the ability to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Because the SSA's Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's ruling constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. See Blakes v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 565, 568 (7th Cir. 2003).

When assessing a disability claim an ALJ conducts the five-step inquiry established by the Social Security Administration. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. On review, the ALJ's decision is affirmed if "it is supported by substantial evidence in the record." Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007)(citations omitted). The Seventh Circuit has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008)(citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Although a court gives the ALJ's credibility determinations "special deference," the ALJ must "build an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result." Ribaudo v. Barnhart, 458 F.3d 580, 584 (7th Cir. 2006). A court may not decide the facts anew, re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ to decide whether the claimant is or is not disabled. Powers v. Apfel, 207 F.3d 431, 434-435 (7th Cir. 2000). In addition, both "the evidence favoring the claimant as well as the evidence favoring the claim's rejection must be examined, since the review of the substantiality of the evidence takes into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Bauzo v. Bowen, 803 F.2d 917, 923 (7th Cir. 1986).

The five-step test established by the Social Security regulations inquires whether:

1. The claimant is presently employed;

2. The claimant has a severe impairment or combination ...

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