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Estela Figueroa Diaz v. Michael J. Astrue

April 18, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Maria Valdez

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER This action was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff Estela Figueroa Diaz's claim for Supplemental Security Income Benefits. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons that follow, Diaz's motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 13] is granted, and the Court finds that this matter should be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.



Diaz originally applied for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on November 19, 2007, alleging disability since December 2, 2001. (R. 31-32, 39.) The application was denied initially on February 21, 2008 and upon reconsideration on May 20, 2008. (R. 39.) Diaz filed a timely request for a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on March 25, 2009. (Id.) Diaz personally appeared and testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel.

(R. 9.) A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

On May 28, 2009, the ALJ denied Diaz's claim for benefits and found her not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 48.) The Social Security Administration Appeals Council denied Diaz's request for review, (R. 1-3), leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and therefore reviewable by the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).


A. Background

Diaz was born on August 15, 1964. (R. 31.) Her past relevant work was as a housekeeper and in light construction. (R. 25, 512.) Diaz claims disability due to back pain and depression. (R. 31-32.) Diaz injured her back at work in 2000 and her left knee at around the same time. (R. 364-67, 420.) Diaz had knee surgery in 2001 and a disc arthroplasty August 2008. (R. 365, 417-19.) She first requested medication for depression in late 2006, and in In October 2007, she was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and continued psychiatric care after her discharge. (R. 257, 281-310, 453-72.)

In her application, Diaz reported that she has difficulty carrying anything unless it is very light, and she has trouble bending down due to the pain in her lower back and her knees. (R. 152.) She is able to drive a car, but only for short periods of time, and she has difficulty using public transportation because of the distance she needs to walk to the bus stop. (R. 153.) Diaz can walk about two blocks, which takes her about twenty minutes, and she can exercise for fifteen minutes on a treadmill. (R. 159, 164.) Diaz claimed that she can only sit for about forty-five minutes before she has to stand up; and then after the pain in her lower back starts, she has to sit or lay down. (R. 153.) She can cook for about twenty or thirty minutes, but she has to take breaks to ease her pain. (Id.) She prepares meals for herself that take only a few minutes, such as tuna salad, soup, sandwiches, cereal, or eggs. (R. 161.) She washes her own dishes, which takes her no more than three minutes after a meal. (Id.) Her parents help her take care of her son. (R. 160.) Diaz stated that her depression medication makes her tired, and she must sleep during the day. (R. 159.) Diaz is able to watch television and play cards, but she goes outside only one or two times a month. (R. 162-63.)

B. Testimony and Medical Evidence

1. Diaz's Testimony

Diaz testified that she lives with her parents and four-year old son. (R. 12.) She is five feet two or three inches tall, and had previously been thin but gained weight after her injury and weighed approximately 175 pounds at the time of the hearing. (Id.) She graduated high school in Mexico and can speak English, although she used an interpreter at the hearing. (R. 13.)

Diaz testified that she does not drive much and only drives short distances because she has pain after sitting for ten or fifteen minutes. (R. 14.) She stated that she can stand for about twenty minutes and walk for twenty minutes if she walks slowly. (R. 15.) Diaz stated that she cannot bend over, only squat. (R. 18.) She can only cook quickly because she cannot stand up for very long, she cannot clean floors, and her mother washes the dishes. (R. 15.) She cannot carry a laundry basket but can put clothes into the washer and dryer. (Id.) She only grocery shops a nearby store; otherwise another member of her family must do it. (R. 16.) Diaz does not watch much television or read; she talks to her mother or sleeps during the day, because her medication makes her drowsy. (R. 16-17.) At night, she never sleeps more than three hours at a time due to pain. (R.23.)

As of the date of the hearing, Diaz was taking Ultram for pain and Cymbalta, Abilify, and Haldol for depression. (R. 21.) Her son reminds her to take her medicine. (R. 22.) She testified that her depression makes conversation difficult, and she gets very nervous when someone begins to argue about anything. (R. 19, 22.)

2. Medical Evidence

a. Physical Impairments

In March 2007, Diaz was first seen by Dr. George Miz for chronic low back pain. (R. 420.) On April 12, 2007, Dr. Miz noted that an MRI scan showed a degenerative disc bulge at L4-L5 with minimal loss of disc height and marked loss of disc height with severe degeneration of the L5-S1 disc. (R. 420, 425.) Dr. Miz recommended a discogram to determine whether or not L4-L5 is a competent pain generator; he noted the likelihood that L5-S1 has not improved since her previous discogram six years earlier. (Id.) The discogram was performed on February 4, 2008, and was ...

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