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Luciana Pulaski v. Michael J. Astrue

May 25, 2012

LUCIANA PULASKI , PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE , COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Martin Ashman Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Luciana Pulaski ("Plaintiff" or "Pulaski") seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before this Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. The parties have consented to have this Court conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including entry of final judgment. 28 U.S.C. § 636(e); N.D. Ill. R. 73.1(c). For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the motion should be granted.

I. Legal Standard

In order to qualify for SSI or DIB, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled. An individual is considered to be disabled when he is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual is under a disability if he is unable to do his previous work and cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, partake in any gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Id. Gainful employment is defined as "the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized."

20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b).

A claim of disability is determined under a five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. First, the SSA considers whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(I). Second, the SSA examines if the physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets the durational requirement.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(ii). Third, the SSA compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(iii). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled; if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the evaluation proceeds to step four. Id. Fourth, the SSA assesses the applicant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and ability to engage in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(iv). In the final step, the SSA assesses whether the claimant can engage in other work in light of his RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(4)(v).

Judicial review of the ALJ's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). The court reviews the entire record, but does not displace the ALJ's judgment by reweighing the facts or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Instead, the court looks at whether the ALJ articulated an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence to her conclusions. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). Thus, even if reasonable minds could differ whether the Plaintiff is disabled, courts will affirm a decision if the ALJ's decision has adequate support. Elder, 529 F.3d at 413 (citing Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 842 (7th Cir. 2007)).

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff, a resident of California, filed an application for disability benefits on April 18, 2008, alleging that she became disabled as of June 4, 2007. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied the claim initially and again on reconsideration, following which a hearing was held in Downey, California before administrative law judge ("ALJ") David Marcus on December 9, 2009. Pulaski was represented by counsel. On January 4, 2010, the ALJ denied Pulaski's claim. She sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on June 22, 2011. The ALJ's opinion then became the Commissioner's final decision, and Pulaski filed the instant action on August 18, 2011.

III. Factual Background

A. Medical Evidence

Pulaski was born on December 18, 1969 in Brazil and was thirty-nine years old when she filed for disability benefits. She appears to have arrived in this country at some point around 1997. (R. 203.) Although some medical documents from Brazil are evidenced in the record, they are untranslated from Portuguese. Pulaski states in a written submission that she fell at the age of one and broke her left leg. (R. 130.) She was taken to a clinic, where her leg was placed in a cast. (Id.) Taken as a whole, the medical record shows that Pulaski experienced problems in her left leg that stemmed from her childhood injury.

The record is undeveloped for the majority of the time prior to December 12, 1997, when Pulaski consulted Dr. Jay Loftsgaarden at the Midelfort Clinic in Eau Clair, Wisconsin. Pulaski denied having any pain at that time, but she was interested in improving the strength of her left leg. (R. 203.) Upon examination, Dr. Loftsgaarden noted that Pulaski had hypermobility in her left hip, with increased internal rotation and extension due to atrophy to the left hip flexors and quadriceps. Her left leg was also shorter than the right by 3 cm. (Id.) Her left quadriceps showed "marked wasting" and did not respond to a pinprick or light touch. (R. 203-04.) Her walking displayed some minor "hip hiking" in which she threw her weight forward. (R. 204.) Dr. Loftsgaarden noted that she suffered from "significant weakness" in her left lower leg, especially the hip flexors and quadriceps. (R. 203.) Pulaski reported that she had undergone two prior knee surgeries. Although the nature of these operations was unclear, Dr. Loftsgaarden concluded they must have been to release her hamstring.

A radiology report confirms that Pulaski had a mild narrowing of the left hip joint, though with no osteophytes, subluxation, or erosive changes. (R. 207.) Her left knee bones were slightly atrophic in comparison with the right, and the musculature was not as prominent. (Id.) A nerve conduction study concluded that Pulaski suffered from femoral neuropathy, with a probable sciatic nerve injury of mild degree. (R. 205.) Dr. Loftsgaarden recommended physical therapy, which Pulaski completed. The exercises did not activate her left quadriceps, but she experienced increased strength in the lower right leg. (R. 206.) Dr. Loftsgaarden concluded that her condition had been caused either by the childhood fracture or by the casting that was applied to remedy her injury. (Id.)

On June 25, 2007, Pulaski consulted neurologist Dr. Paul Helfgott concerning pain in her leg, neck, and shoulders. Pulaski complained that sitting or standing too long would create numbness in her hands and feet, and that she frequently experienced "popping" in her neck and shoulder. (R. 199.) Dr. Helfgott also noted that Pulaski's left leg was 3 cm. shorter than her right, her left calf circumference was 2 cm. smaller than the right, and her thigh circumference was 10 cm. shorter on the left. (R. 200.) She also showed some scoliosis in her spine, though a MRI study revealed an "unremarkable" cervical spine. (R. 221.) As for strength, Dr. Helfgott determined that her left hip flexors and quadriceps were a two out of five, adductors were zero out five, and abduction was a full five out of five. However, Plaintiff was seen to ambulate asymmetrically, with pronounced difficulty in using hip flexion strength to bring her leg forward when walking. (R. 200.) Dr. Helfgott concluded that "aggressive intervention" was not called for, and that Pulaski most probably suffered from a fixed lesion that would require physical therapy. (Id.) Dr. Loftsgaarden largely concurred with this plan on October 21, 1998, when he noted that Pulaski should continue with her current exercise on a stationary bicycle, and that further strengthening was unlikely to lead to additional improvement in her quadriceps. (R. 223.) On June 27, 2007, Pulaski also saw Dr. Ali Hafezi at the Spine Center of Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier, California. She complained primarily of pain in her right buttock, both knees, and elbows. (R. 261.) Pulaski reported that she was not in severe pain, but that she was uncomfortable when standing and walking for long periods of time. Pulaski did not present her nerve conduction study to Dr. Hafezi, reporting instead that Dr. Helfgott had explained that she may have suffered some nerve damage in her thigh. (Id.) Dr. Hafezi told Plaintiff that any damage that existed to her nerves was not reversible. (R. 262.) After finding that she had some scoliosis in her lumbar spine, Dr. Hafezi concluded that her MRI did not suggest that she was a candidate for narcotic pain medication, and he prescribed physical therapy instead. (Id.) She reported to him on August 28, 2007 that the therapy had helped, and documents supplied by the physical therapist confirmed this report. (R. 283.) Dr. Hafezi recommended that she continue with "conservative management." (R. 219.)

In the fall of 2008, Plaintiff underwent another round of radiological and neurological testing. A nerve conduction study performed by Dr. Helfgott on September 15, 2008 shows that she had no active nerve disease, though there was clearly a diffuse loss of motor units on the left side. (R. 380.) A significant asymmetry in the distal latency of her femoral motor nerves was seen, with ten percent less amplitude on the left than on the right. (Id.) A MRI showed a slightly tilted right pelvis. Possible ovarian cysts were noted, but the exam was otherwise normal. (R. 373.) A MRI of the right knee indicated only some mild bruising and a small joint effusion. (R. 374.)

On December 3, 2009, Dr. Hafezi issued a RFC Questionnaire concerning Plaintiff.

Dr. Hafezi noted significant restrictions in her ability to sit, stand, and walk. He determined that she was able to sit for only three hours at a time, stand for one hour, and walk for less than thirty minutes at a time. (R. 400.) During the course of an eight-hour day, Pulaski was found to be restricted to sitting for a total of five hours, standing for two, and walking for one. She could lift and carry up to ten pounds frequently, could lift up to twenty pounds occasionally, but could never carry more ...


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