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Thomas D. Spindler v. Michael J. Astrue

December 28, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arlander Keys United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff, Thomas Spindler ("Mr. Spindler" or "Plaintiff"), seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") finding him not disabled and denying his claim for Social Security Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§416 and 423. This case is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. Mr. Spindler raises several issues for review, including: 1) whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") committed reversible error by not giving the medical opinion of Dr. Dekhtyar controlling weight, 2) whether the ALJ failed to weigh the medical opinion evidence based on the requirements set out in 20 C.F.R. 404.1527(d), 3) whether the ALJ improperly concluded that, because Mr. Spindler was able to complete basic tasks, he was not disabled, 4) whether the ALJ improperly determined that Mr. Spindler could perform work based on his ability to complete very simple tasks at home, 5) whether the ALJ improperly substituted her own lay opinion in determining Mr. Spindler's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), 6) whether the ALJ improperly determined that Mr. Spindler's claims of debilitation due to pain and mental limitations were not credible, and 7) whether the ALJ failed to take adequately into account how Mr. Spindler's obesity may affect his other impairments. For the reasons set forth below, Claimant's motion for summary judgment is denied, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is granted.



On October 29, 2007, Mr. Spindler filed a Title II application for disability benefits, alleging disability beginning April 2, 2006. The claim was initially denied on February 6, 2008, and again upon reconsideration on June 16, 2008. Thereafter, Mr. Spindler filed a timely request for a hearing, which was conducted on July 7, 2009. Mr. Spindler, age 43 at the time of his alleged disability onset date, subsequently changed age category to that of a "younger individual" between the age of 45-49 as defined by 20 CFR 404.1563 by the time of his hearing. ALJ Janice Bruning issued a ruling denying benefits on January 4, 2010, finding that Mr. Spindler was not disabled under sections 216(I) and 223 of the Social Security Act. POST-DECISION PROCEDURAL HISTORY Mr. Spindler requested review by the Appeals Council but was denied on April 29, 2011. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Spindler filed a complaint with this court on June 9, 2011, seeking a review of the decision. The parties consented to exercise of jurisdiction by a magistrate judge on July 14, 2011. Thereafter, cross-motions for summary judgment were filed. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g).


I. Claimant's Hearing Testimony

At the July 7, 2009 hearing before the ALJ, Mr. Spindler, who was born on February 15, 1963, appeared and was represented by counsel. He testified that he received his GED and was in the navy from 1980 to 1981. [R. 37] He did not receive any special training while in the service, nor does he have any other vocational or specialized training. Id. He testified that he is married and lives in a house with his wife and their 12 year-old daughter. [R. 36] His wife works 10 hours a week at a church. Aside from a public aid health card, they receive no other public assistance. [R. 37] Mr. Spindler testified that he stopped driving about a year ago because it began to set off migraine headaches, and he also would freeze up at heavily congested intersections. [R. 48]

With regard to his daily routine, Mr. Spindler testified that his wife performs the majority of the daily tasks including grocery shopping, driving, making the bed, and taking out the garbage. However, he can take a chair to the sink to wash dishes, he can do the laundry, sweep, prepare himself a meal, and he can mow the lawn in small sections. [R. 49-50] His wife and daughter care for several family pets, while he is solely able to care for his pet snake by feeding it mice and occasionally cleaning its tank. [R. 51] Mr. Spindler testified that his typical day begins around 10:00am, as the medication his psychiatrist prescribed makes him sleepy. [R. 54] After rising, he turns on the lamp for his snake, checks the mail, watches television and makes lunch. Id. His wife leaves to work at the church, while he stays home. Id. During the day, he is unable to sleep, and often spends time stretching his back out on the couch. [R. 54, 48-49] He testified that, overall, his medication keeps him sleepy and he gets dizzy regularly each day.

[R. 55] Depending on how he feels, he usually goes to bed around 9:00pm or 11:00pm. [R. 54]

Mr. Spindler testified that he rarely drinks, and added that he can no longer do so on his medications. [R. 45] He also testified that he has not smoked marijuana since 2007. Id. For entertainment he testified to enjoying watching television, listening to shortwave radios, and that he took up teaching himself the guitar. [R. 54] He testified to using the computer to check email and search Craigslist for approximately half an hour each week. Id. He used to enjoy canoeing and mountain biking, but has not canoed since 2006 due to the issues with his shoulder. Id. Mr. Spindler testified to having some issues regarding his daily personal care, including difficulty putting on his pants because his right leg does not lift high enough, and that because he can not reach behind himself well, when he goes to the bathroom he must take a shower with a spray hose afterward. [R. 49] With regard to socialization, Mr. Spindler testified that he has one friend and does not enjoy socializing with people often. [R. 50] He regularly attends Sunday morning church service and occasionally attends activities and performances in which his daughter participates. [R. 51]

With regard to his work history, Mr. Spindler testified that his last real job was in 2006 when he worked for Standard Safety Equipment. [R. 40] He stopped working there when he had to have a stent placed in his heart on April 2, 2006. Id. He began a new machine shop job shortly after the stenting, but was only able to work for a couple weeks before he had to quit due to severe headaches and dizziness. [R. 42] Mr. Spindler testified that he worked in his brother's machine shop off and on during 2007 and 2008. [R. 38-39] He did not work there everyday, but instead his brother would "throw him a couple of hours and if he had to leave and go home it was okay with him." [R. 39] He testified that he also did a couple other small jobs in 2007, each job required standing and the lifting of small parts no heaver than 20 pounds. [R. 42-43] Mr. Spindler testified that he stopped working for his brother because his back hurt too much to continue and he could no longer drive himself to work due to migraine headaches. [R. 40, 48]

With regard to his ailments and medication, Mr. Spindler testified that he currently suffers from severe back pain. Id. He has had physical therapy, pool therapy, and takes medication to treat his back. [R. 43] He testified that he did not want to take any pain medication, but he does go for regular check-ups regarding his heart, and takes medication for his hypertension. Mr. Spindler testified that, since the stenting, he has not had any other major issues regarding his heart. Id. He originally was prescribed a CPAP, but has since switched to the use of a BIPAP in order to sleep. Id.

Mr. Spindler testified that, shortly after the stenting operation, he began to experience trouble with his vision. [R. 44] He testified that watching rotating things or driving would bring on a headache and flickering in his eyes. Id. After experiencing body pain and weakness, Mr. Spindler testified, he saw a doctor and was tested for a stroke. Id. However, the results were negative. The doctor explained that he had a bad reaction to Lipitor and took him off of the drug. Id. Mr. Spindler testified that, although his shoulder and hip never fully recuperated from the reaction, he is better now. [R. 44]

With regard to his limitations and abilities, Mr. Spindler testified that he can stand on his feet for approximately 15 minutes before his back starts hurting. He is able to walk the length from his car to the middle of a shopping center, and then needs to sit before his back tightens and locks. [R. 45] He testified that lifting a gallon of milk with his right arm causes pain, but his left arm is in "pretty good shape." [R. 46] He testified to having difficulty climbing stairs, and explained that his left leg goes numb and he does not have feeling there. Id. He was told by a doctor that the numbness is related to his back problems. Id. He testified to having difficulty when bending, stooping, crouching, crawling, and kneeling. Id. His balance in general is good, however he has difficulty reaching overhead and in front with his right arm. Id. He testified that his hands are ok. Id. He testified to occasionally using a cane for assistance when walking, although it was never doctor recommended. [R. 54-55]

Mr. Spindler testified that he does not sleep well at night, as his dreams sometimes keep him up. [R. 47] He went to a psychiatrist and was prescribed medication for the issue. Id. He testified to seeing the psychiatrist for the past six months, about once a month. Id. He was told he was suffering from depression and schizophrenia. Id. He testified that when he was younger, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and took medication to control it, as well. Id. Mr. Spindler testified that the current medication consisted of four pills, and that they made him tired and he always felt kind of bored, however the medication had caused a lot of his problems and racing thoughts to stop. [R. 47-48] He testified to having racing thoughts and other problems associated with his schizophrenia while he was working, and to cope, he would go to the bathroom until it ceased. [R. 48] His employers were never aware of his issue, however his brother knew and would allow him to leave when he needed. Id.

II. Vocational Expert's Hearing Testimony

The ALJ also heard testimony from Timothy Grobowski, a Vocational Expert ("VE") who reviewed Mr. Spindler's work record and heard Mr. Spindler's testimony before the ALJ. After being asked to describe Mr. Spindler's past work history, the VE testified that Plaintiff previously worked as a machinist, a slitter operator, and a maintenance tech individual. [R. 57-58] Mr. Spindler's previously held positions ranged in the DOT at medium, light, and heavy exertional levels. Id. The VE testified that none of the skills Mr. Spindler previously obtained are transferable to sedentary work. Id.

The VE testified that, although Mr. Spindler could no longer perform any of his previous jobs, there were still other jobs in existence within the national economy that he could perform at his current level of ability. [R. 58-59] The ALJ questioned the VE on the availability of jobs that avoided exposure to heights, moving machinery, vibration, and noise at Mr. Spindler's level of skill, work experience, and education. [R. 58] The hypothetical individual could lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally, less than 10 pounds frequently; could stand and/or walk a total of two hours during an eight-hour workday with a sit and stand option at will; could sit at least six hours during an eight-hour workday with a sit/stand option at will; could occasionally climb ramps and stairs; could occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, and crawl; and could have only occasional contact with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. [R. 59-60] The VE testified that there were several sedentary level positions that met the needs of such a hypothetical person, including hand packer (2,000 positions in the Chicago area), bench assembler (3,000 positions in the Chicago area), and inspector (1,000 positions in the Chicago area). [R. 59]

The VE testified that the above positions would be unavailable, however, to an individual with the aforementioned limitations if the individual was unable to work three days per month. [R. 60] Additionally, the VE testified that, if due to anxiety or for whatever reason, the individual were to be off-task an average of 20 percent or more of the workday, there would be no competitive employment, as well. Id.


In addition to the testimony of Mr. Spindler and the VE, the ALJ also considered Mr. Spindler's relevant medical records from his doctors, whom he had been seeking treatment from concurrently.

Heart Issues

On April 4, 2006, Mr. Spindler was admitted to Northern Illinois Medical Center to undergo a cardiac stenting and catherization after a coronary angiography demonstrated significant right coronary disease and moderate LAD disease. [R. 201-207] Dr. Mujahid Hussain conducted the initial consultation, noting that Mr. Spindler was a 43-year old male with a history of obstructive sleep apnea, palpitations, dyspnea, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, obesity, and LV systolic dysfunction. [R. 201] Mr. Spindler noted to Dr. Hussain that he drinks on a daily basis and, although he does not smoke cigarettes, he smokes marijuana daily and has done so for the past 30 years. Id.

During his physical examination, Dr. Hussein noted that Mr. Spindler was morbidly obese*fn1 but did not appear to be in any distress. Dr. Douglas Tomasian successfully performed the cardiac stenting and catherization and recommended continued medical therapy for the cardiomyopathy. [R. 208]

Mr. Spindler returned to the hospital on January 16, 2007, after suffering several episodes where his vision suddenly blurred, his speech and hearing became garbled, and he had difficulty walking. [R. 217-219] His vision, hearing, and speech returned to normal within a couple hours, however, his walking remained impeded. [R 217, 379]. Attending physician Dr. Daniel Nepomuceno physically examined Mr. Spindler and found him to be a well developed male in no acute distress at the time. However, while attempting to ambulate, he found him to have obvious ataxia and a staggering gait. [R. 218] Dr. Nepomuceno determined that Mr. Spindler's left ventricle was enlarged, and although the symptoms suggested that he had suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke, the tests returned unremarkable.

[R. 217] He was medicated with a regimen of coreg, enalpril, plavix, aspirin as needed, and was told to discontinue his use of lipitor. The doses of some of his medications were altered and he was advised that they would continue to monitor the progression of his coronary artery disease. Id.

Sleep Issues

Mr. Spindler stated to his doctors that he had dealt with sleep problems for almost 20 years, he had difficulty falling asleep, and his wife had noticed sleep apnea. [R. 201] Dr. Hussain recorded that he has no prior surgical history but underwent a sleep study in 2005, after being diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. Id. Although the results of the study are unknown, he was prescribed a CPAP at 15cm of water pressure to help regulates his breathing. Id. The mask initially helped him sleep through the night uninterrupted, but by 2006 its efficacy had decreased. On several occasions, Mr. Spindler saw Dr. Pocholo Florentino, his primary care physician, with complaints of continued obstructive sleep apnea. [R. 211-213] Each time, Dr. Florentino readjusted Mr. Spindler's CPAP pressure, prescribed a heated humidifier, and suggested a follow-up reassessment after a few months. Id. By 2008, progress had reversed and Mr. Spindler once again complained of excessive daytime sleepiness and un-refreshing sleep. [R. 468]

Dissatisfied with Dr. Florentino, Mr. Spindler began to regularly see Dr. Daniel Nepomuceno to address his sleep issues. Dr. Nepomuceno noted that Mr. Spindler had been on a CPAP using an auto-titrating pressure range from 14-18 cm of water pressure on a nightly basis. [R. 467] He used the therapy on average seven to eight hours a night, and during a polysomnography performed on September 10, 2008, it was determined revolution of events was achieved at 14 cm. Id. Mr. Spindler explained that he felt like he awoke at 3:00am and was unable to get back to sleep. However, the ...

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