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Charles T. Stewart v. Michael J. Astrue

July 19, 2012

CHARLES T. STEWART, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan H. Lefkow

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Charles T. Stewart seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act of 1935, as amended ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. Stewart, a resident of the Northern District of Illinois, filed applications for disability insurance benefits and SSI on January 19, 1993, and was found disabled on April 13, 1992, which is his alleged onset date. Stewart's case was reviewed in 1996 and his eligibility was continued. Upon review on May 26, 2000, however, the Social Security Administration ("the Commissioner") notified Stewart that, as of July 2000, his medical condition had improved and he was no longer disabled. Due to an "administrative error," R. 17, Stewart continued to receive benefits through August, 2004. Asserting that he had not received notice of the termination in 2000, after his benefits ceased, Stewart sought reconsideration and a hearing. On March 20, 2008, Stewart's claim was heard on the merits at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Helen Cropper ("the ALJ"). The ALJ determined that Stewart was not disabled as of the cessation date of May 1, 2000 and had not been disabled from that period forward to the present. The ALJ's decision was adopted by the Appeals Council. Its final decision is dated February 6, 2009. This complaint was timely filed on April 3, 2009. This court has jurisdiction over this case under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).

Stewart asks the court to reverse the final decision under the relevant provisions of the Act, including 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), and 1382, or to remand this case for further consideration of his claims. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the court will remand the case to the Commissioner.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The administrative law judge's opinion on a claimant's disability must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 639-40 (7th Cir. 1987) (quoting Smith v. Schweiker, 735 F.2d 267, 270 (7th Cir. 1984)).*fn1

"Substantial evidence has been defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Aidinovski v. Apfel, 27 F. Supp. 2d 1097, 1101 (N.D. Ill. 1998) (quoting Estok v. Apfel, 152 f.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1995). The court may not reweigh the evidence. Walker, 834 F.2d at 640. "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the Secretary (or the Secretary's designee, the ALJ)." Id. (citing Delgado v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 79, 82-83 (7th Cir. 1986)). "Therefore, the question presented for review is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but only whether the ALJ's finding of non-disability is supported by substantial evidence in the record." Id. Finally, the ALJ must articulate her assessment of the evidence and the basis for her conclusion in order to "build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion." Giles ex rel. Giles v. Astrue, 483 F.3d 483, 487 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002)). Without such an explanation, the courts cannot undertake any meaningful review and should remand the case. See id. at 488; Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

STANDARDS GOVERNING DISABILITY DETERMINATIONS

Under governing regulations, continued entitlement to disability insurance benefits or SSI (the disability determination standards are the same so the term disability insurance benefits will be used for the sake of convenience) must be reviewed periodically to determine whether an individual's disability continues. If one's medical condition has improved to the point that he is able to engage in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will determine that disability has ended and terminate benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a). Although there is no presumption that disability continues, see Soper v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 222, 224 n.1 (7th Cir. 1985), the Commissioner bears the evidentiary burden to demonstrate that a disability has ceased. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(5) ("In most instances, we must show that you are able to engage in substantial gainful activity before your benefits are stopped."); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(c)(3)(i) (1988) ("If there has been medical improvement to the degree that the requirement of the listing section is no longer met or equaled, then the medical improvement is related to your ability to work. We must, of course, also establish that you can currently engage in gainful activity before finding that your disability has ended.").

Regulations prescribe a sequential eight-part test for determining whether a claimant remains disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f). Under this test the Commissioner must consider the following: (1) whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity during the period for which he claims disability; if not, (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments which meets or equals any impairment listed in the Regulations as being so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity; and, if not, (3) whether there has been medical improvement (as defined). If there has been medical improvement, the Commissioner decides (4) whether there has also been improvement in the claimant's residual functioning capacity ("RFC") as compared to the date of the most recent favorable decision finding him disabled ("comparison point decision" or "CPD"); and, if so, (5) whether certain exceptions (not relevant here) apply. If medical improvement has increased the claimant's ability to work, the Commissioner determines (6) whether all of the claimants's current impairments are severe; and (7) whether the claimant has the current ability to do substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is not able to do work he has done in the past, the Commissioner considers (8) whether, "[g]iven the residual functional capacity assessment and considering [the claimant's] age, education and past work experience, can [he or she] do other work?" If he can do other work, the disability has ended. If not, the disability determination continues. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(8). This process is sequential, and if at any step the ALJ can make a conclusive finding that the claimant either is or is not disabled, the inquiry ends and the ALJ need not continue. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f) ("Our review may cease and benefits may be continued at any point if we determine there is sufficient evidence to find that you are still unable to engage in substantial gainful activity.")

I. FACTS

The facts stated in a light favorable to Stewart are these: CharlesStewart was born on April 3, 1960, was 32 at the onset of his disability, and 47 at the time of the hearing. R. 66. Stewart is 5'9" tall and weighs 146 pounds. He was educated through the twelfth grade plus approximately one-and-a-half years at Southeastern Illinois College. R. 210, 250-51, 374. He served in the military between 1984 and 1991, receiving an honorable discharge. R. 250-51. He attempted to re-enlist but was found unfit for duty as a result of a back problem. R. 250. He was previously employed as a postal worker. R. 251. Stewart last worked at Helene Curtis, for about four years ending in 1991, and has not since performed substantial gainful activity. R. 156.

A. Medical Evidence

1. Physical Impairments

In December of 1992, Stewart reportedly underwent back surgery due to his work related injury. R. 46; but see R. 218.*fn2 In April of 1996, he fractured his right ulna. R. 22. On December 6, 1991, during his employment at Helene Curtis, Stewart was severely injured when he was struck in the back by a forklift and thrown six to eight feet. R.124, 167, 338. He was hospitalized for approximately 18 months and treated with rehabilitation and psychiatric services. R. 209, 338. On March 31, 2000, he underwent a consultative examination by a State agency-selected physician, Hilton Gordon, M.D., who diagnosed low back syndrome with limitations in lumbar range of motion, and status post fracture of the left fifth finger bone graft, finding finger tenderness and inability to completely flex or extend the finger. R. 213-15. A non-examining State agency reviewer, E.C. Bone, completed a Physical RFC form finding Stewart, as of May 2001, capable of medium level work with occasional postural limitations in all areas and slight limitation in performing jobs requiring fine manipulation with his left hand.

R. 241-48.

On July 7, 2003, Stewart sustained a closed fracture of the left distal radius and to the soft tissue along the ulnar border of the hand as well as blunt chest trauma after falling from a roof while positive for alcohol. R. 479, 494, 520-44. He underwent surgery of his left wrist performed by Terry R. Light, M.D., and required several months to recover. R. 481-517. A CT chest exam from July noted multiple bullae in the right lung apex and multiple small bilateral renal cysts. R. 539.

On July 26, 2004, Stewart underwent another internal medicine consultative examination by a State agency-selected doctor, Dominic Gaziano, M.D. This examination revealed a history of low back pain, hypertension, and enlarged heart, inability to walk 50 feet without assistance, inability to toe or heel walk, pain upon extension and flexion, walking with slow short steps, a limited range of motion of the lumbosacral spine, an inability to squat more than 1/5 of the way to the floor, and finger and right wrist fractures with decreased hand grip. R. 218-22.

On November 16, 2004, Stewart was seen at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. R. 409. The examiner diagnosed chronic low back pain without neurologic deficit. R. 410. Stewart was admitted to Little Company of Mary Hospital in January of 2005 for four days, suffering from left-side weakness and a syncope episode with left hemiparesthesia and a positive alcohol level.

R. 435-75. A CT scan of Stewart's brain showed no significant abnormality. R. 465.

A record of a cardiac examination prepared by Nalini Rajamannan, M.D., dated June 13, 2005, noted findings consistent with non-ischemic cardiomyopathy. R. 381, 385. Stewart was started on a beta blocker for high blood pressure. R.381..

On March 17, 2007, Stewart fell injuring his back and suffering a rib fracture of the posterior left eleventh rib. He sought treatment at the Little Company of Mary Hospital emergency room, there admitting that he had been drinking. R. 354-58, 423-34. On April 11, 2007, Stewart was seen for follow-up from this fall. Notations were made of numbness with pain, right lower leg pain, and right hand swelling and erythema. R. 349. He was given Vicodin for his fractured rib pain. R. 351.

An ER record from Little Company of Mary, dated May 14, 2007, noted that Stewart presented and was treated for "unbearable" lower back pain radiating down his right leg. R. 292-93. The impression was back pain, with a differential diagnosis including a herniated disk, vertebral collapse, muscular spasm, sciatica; infections of pyelonephritis, pancreatitis; abdominal aortic rupture, mesenteric ischemia and renal artery stenosis; medication withdrawal; and drug-seeking behavior. R. 294-304. A radiology report suggested loss of lordosis and dextroscoliosis with possible back muscle spasm. R. 305.He was given Motrin, Vicodin and Flexeril upon release. R. 346.

On November 19, 2007, Stewart was seen at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for chronic lower back pain and weakness of the L5 muscle on the right side. R. 404-08.

On December 10, 2007, an MRI of Stewart's lumbosacral spine showed straightening of the normal lumbar lordosis, a diffuse bulge at the L4-5 level with superimposed right foraminal to right far lateral disc extrusion with superior migration resulting in severe right forminal stenosis, directly compressing the undersurface of the right L4 nerve root, mild spinal canal ...


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