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Evelyn Cobb v. Michael J. Astrue

December 6, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim


Evelyn Cobb seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2), 1382c(a). Cobb asks the court to reverse the Commissioner's decision and award her benefits, or in the alternative, to remand the case for further proceedings. For the following reasons, Cobb's motion for summary judgment is granted insofar as it requests a remand.

Procedural History

Cobb applied for DIB and SSI on January 6, 2009, alleging that she became disabled on October 8, 2008, as a result of degenerative arthritis. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 32-35.) The Commissioner denied her applications on April 16, 2009, and again on reconsideration on August 24, 2009. (Id. at 37-43.) Cobb thereafter requested and received a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on September 2, 2010. (Id. at 49-53, 66-72.) The ALJ conducted the hearing by video. (Id. at 24-31.) On November 24, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding Cobb not disabled. (Id. at 13-20.) The Appeals Council denied Cobb's request for review on August 10, 2010 (id. at 1-3), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, see Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 695 (7th Cir. 2012). Cobb initiated this civil action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).


A. Medical Evidence

Cobb, who is 58 years old, suffers from degenerative arthritis. The record demonstrates that she has sought medical treatment for this condition and also for pain that she experiences in her neck, both feet, knees, hips, and lower back. (A.R. 247-49, 251-52, 254, 257.) A 2005 MRI revealed minimal degenerative changes at the C4/C5, C5/C6, and C6/C7 disk spaces and encroachment on the intervertebral foramina at the C4/C5 level. (Id. at 260.) In December 2008 an MRI of Cobb's lumbosacral spine, bilateral hips, knees, and feet showed minimal degenerative changes but no evidence of fracture or dislocation. (Id. at 198.)

In March 2009 Cobb saw Dr. Rochelle Hawkins for a consultative examination. Dr. Hawkins examined Cobb for 34 minutes, noting that Cobb presented with arthritis and a pinched nerve in her spine that irritated the bottoms of her feet. (Id. at 202.) Cobb also complained of arthritic pain and burning sensations when walking. (Id.) Cobb told Dr. Hawkins that she took Naprosyn and Tylenol to manage her pain, describing her daily pain as a 9 out of 10, but she also informed Dr. Hawkins that she had not undergone any physical therapy or taken pain injections. (Id. at 202-03.) She indicated to the doctor that she lived at home and performed her daily living activities without difficulty. (Id. at 202.) Dr. Hawkins observed that Cobb's upper and lower extremities were normal; there was no evidence of any joint swelling or limitation on joint or spinal movement; Cobb demonstrated strong grip strength and a normal ability to perform fine and gross manipulations; and her gait was normal and unassisted. (Id. at 203-04.) Based on her examination, Dr. Hawkins concluded that Cobb was able to sit, stand, and walk, and lift, carry, and handle objects. (Id. at 205.) The following month, in April 2009, Cobb sought emergency treatment for swelling and pain in her right foot caused by a fall. (Id. at 214-16.) X-rays revealed that Cobb suffered a fracture of her fifth metatarsal bone. (Id. at 223-26.)

Soon thereafter, Dr. Victoria Dow, a state agency physician, completed a Physical Residual Functional Capacity Assessment. (Id. at 227-34.) Dr. Dow acknowledged Cobb's complaints of a pinched nerve in her spine and low back pain, but also noted that x-rays of Cobb's lumbar spine and feet showed minimal degenerative changes. (Id. at 234.) Dr. Dow reported that Cobb exhibited a normal gait and demonstrated normal strength and range of motion of all her joints, including her lumbar spine. (Id.) She concluded that although Cobb's complaints were "partially credible"-the x-rays revealed that minimal degenerative changes in her lumbar spine were evident and her treating physicians prescribed her pain medication-Cobb's allegations regarding the severity of her limitations were not supported by the evidence. (Id.)

In November 2009 Cobb sought treatment for a pinched nerve in her spine and for arthritic pain in her knees that radiated to her feet. (Id. at 240, 285.) She also reported numbness and neck pain that radiated down her left arm. (Id. at 238, 240, 285.) An x-ray of Cobb's cervical spine revealed degenerative changes from C4 through C7 with the degenerative disc disease most pronounced at the C4/C5 and C6/C7 levels. (Id. at 281-82.) When the hospital discharged Cobb, her treating physicians documented diagnoses of cervical joint disease and plantar fasciitis-inflamation of the thick tissue on the bottom of the foot-recommending physical therapy and that she continue to take her pain medications. (Id. at 239-41.)

The following year, in May 2010, Cobb sought treatment at the pain clinic of Stroger Hospital, complaining of constant and radiating low back and neck pain that worsened with movement. (Id. at 269-70.) She reported that she experienced partial relief when she took pain medication, which included Tramadol, Naproxen, and Diclofenac. (Id. at 268, 270, 278.) Consistent with Cobb's November 2009 x-ray, a cervical spine x-ray revealed degenerative joint disease at C4/C5 and C6/C7. (Id. at 272.) The clinic diagnosed Cobb with myofascial or chronic pain. (Id.) A cervical MRI in June 2010 confirmed multilevel degenerative changes at C4/C5 and C5/C6 and moderate bilateral neural foraminal stenosis at C5/C6, but also noted no spinal canal or neural foraminal stenosis other than at the C5/C6 level. (Id. at 289-90.)

B. Cobb's Hearing Testimony

At the hearing before the ALJ, Cobb testified that she has experienced back problems since 2000. (A.R. 28.) After the doctors diagnosed her with arthritis in her knees, heels, and feet, she tried to continue working, but after a day's work, she could no longer stand because of the pain. (Id.) Cobb stated that her foot pain was so severe that she could not walk to the train station and required assistance to get home. (Id.) Cobb testified that she feels as if her bones are "cracking" and that her knees "lock up" to the extent that she sometimes cannot move them. (Id.) According to Cobb, when she wakes up in the morning, she must sit on the side of her bed for 30 minutes to give her feet and legs time to "start functioning." (Id. at 29.) She also experiences constant, radiating pain through her legs that lasts through the night, pain that she says makes her feel like she is "constantly jumping." (Id. at 30.) She testified that she is unable to sit or stand for too long and that if she stands or walks for too long, the balls of her feet are in so much pain that she has to balance on her tiptoes. (Id.) Cobb testified that she also experiences numbness in her hands and constant neck pain, stating that sometimes the pain is so severe she cannot move her neck at all. (Id. at 29-30.)

Cobb testified that on a typical day, after she awakens, she waits 30 minutes for her legs to start functioning. (Id. at 29.) She then makes coffee and toast and takes her medication. (Id.) Pursuant to her doctors' advice, she walks around the block to prevent her legs from "lock[ing] up." (Id.) After the walk, she rests, takes her medication, and then takes another walk. (Id.) After that walk, Cobb waits for her daughter to make her dinner. (Id.) Cobb also ...

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