United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
DONNA J. SCHWEIZER, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JOHN Z. LEE, District Judge.
In this appeal, Donna J. Schweizer seeks a review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Schweizer moves for summary judgment asking the Court to reverse the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, while the Commissioner opposes her motion and asks the Court to affirm the decision. For the reasons provided herein, the Court denies Schweizer's summary judgment motion, affirms the Commissioner's decision, and dismisses this lawsuit in its entirety.
I. Procedural History
On December 1, 2010, Schweizer applied for both Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. Schweizer alleged that she became disabled on April 17, 2009, due to a condition resulting from a torn esophagus sustained during an endoscopy procedure. R. 174, 183. Schweizer's applications were denied. R. 91-95. She then requested reconsideration of the denial, but on August 16, 2011, that request was also denied. R. 96, 102.
At her request, SSA Administrative Law Judge Lee Lewin ("ALJ Lewin") held a hearing on December 6, 2011, to determine the merits of her claims. R. 31, 112, 116. Schweizer, who was represented by counsel, medical expert John Pollard, and vocational expert Stephen Davis testified at the hearing. R. 31.
On December 28, 2011, ALJ Lewin denied Schweizer's claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, finding that Schweizer was not disabled as required by the Social Security Act. R. 7-20.
On March 22, 2012, the SSA Appeals Council denied Schweizer's request for review. R. 5. Thus, ALJ Lewin's ruling became the SSA's final decision on the matter and is reviewable by the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 361 (7th Cir. 2013).
II. Factual Background
A. Vocational Evidence
Schweizer was born on January 29, 1967, and was 44 years old at the time of the SSA hearing. R. 176. She is five feet eight inches tall, weighs around 194 pounds, and has a high school education. R. 34. She alleges a disability onset date of April 17, 2009, at which time she was 42 years old. R. 174, 183. Schweizer's alleged disability results from scar tissue and nerve damage to her throat that purportedly was caused by a small tear in her esophagus from an endoscopic procedure. R. 37. From February to November 2010, she made $26, 000.00 while employed as a full-time automotive sales person at a car dealer making straight commission. R. 35-36.
B. Medical Evidence
The medical evidence in the administrative record describes the onset of Schweizer's condition and the treatment she received. On April 16, 2009, Schweizer underwent an upper endoscopy of her upper gastrointestinal tract. R. 459. On the day she underwent the endoscopy, Schweizer began experiencing a cough and a sore throat. R. 461. Her symptoms prompted her to go to the emergency room, where Schweizer received a CT scan that showed that she had a small upper esophageal tear. R. 461. She subsequently developed an infection, and she was hospitalized at Provena-St. Mary's Hospital in Kankakee, Illinois, for at least six days. While she was at the hospital, Schweizer was intubated for respiratory support and suffered from high fevers and a chest infection. R. 594.
Shortly thereafter, on May 6, 2009, Schweizer was examined by her primary doctor, Dr. Hashim Zaidi. R. 540. Dr. Zaidi noted that Schweizer complained of moderate epigastric pain, a cough, and a constant sore throat. R. 539. He diagnosed her as having gastroesophogeal reflux, a persistent cough, and reflux esophagitis. R. 540. Dr. Zaidi authorized Schweizer to return to work as of May 11, 2009. R. 575.
Schweizer sought further treatment from her ENT physician, Dr. Christopher Lombardo. On May 13, 2009, Dr. Lombardo examined Schweizer, who complained of chronic hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and pain when swallowing. R. 594. According to Dr. Lombardo, Schweizer indicated she had intermittent fevers, a chronic cough, and fullness in the throat, especially in the left upper anterior throat at the level of the hyoid and sternal notch region. R. 594-95. Seven months later, on December 23, 2009, Schweizer returned to Dr. Lombardo, who observed that she was experiencing intermittent hoarseness that was stress-related, a sensation of fullness in the throat, and some difficulty swallowing. R. 588. After examining Schweizer, Dr. Lombardo also noted that she had minimal to mild tenderness in her right neck muscles when touched. R. 589-90. He advised Schweizer to continue seeing her speech therapist. R. 590.
In June 2010, because Schweizer had complained of right neck pain, she underwent a magnetic resonance imaging report ("MRI") of her neck and cervical spine as well as bone scans. R. 582, 584. The bone scans were normal with minimal arthritic cervical change. R. 586. The MRI of her cervical spine showed no acute compression, some disc space narrowing and disc degeneration from C4-C5 through C6-7, and normal spinal cord size and signal. R. 584.
In September 2010, Schweizer saw another ENT physician, Dr. Rajeev Mehta, for her throat problems. R. 580. She stated that she was suffering from a constant sore throat, a raspy voice that became worse later in the day, right neck pain that felt like needles, and some neck stiffness when turning her head to the left. R. 580. She told Dr. Mehta that she was not taking any medication to alleviate those symptoms. R. 580. A month later, in October 2010, Dr. Mehta met with Schweizer to report the results of an ultrasound and an esophagram of her esophagus. R. 578. Dr. Mehta told her that her esophagus was normal, with the exception of a small bleb, or mucous change, which had questionable significance. Id.
On October 28, 2010, Schweizer began seeing a neurologist, Dr. Daniel Orozco, to treat her throat symptoms. R. 522, 520. She complained of sharp pains on the right side of her throat throughout the day, difficulty in swallowing, and intermittent problems with her vocal cords that caused hoarseness. R. 522. Schweizer told Dr. Orozco that she had been treated with different medications that had not worked well, including Dilantin, which did little to alleviate the pain. R. 523. Dr. Orozco prescribed the liquid form of Neurontin. R. 524. During a follow-up visit on November 18, 2010, Dr. Orozco diagnosed Schweizer with glossopharyngeal neuralgia. R. 521. He noted that her voice was hoarse and that the liquid form of Neurontin provided her with temporary relief of her symptoms. R. 520. Dr. Orozco instructed her to return in four months. R. 521.
After Schweizer applied for disability benefits, the Illinois Bureau of Disability Determination Services selected Dr. Sarat Yalamanchili to perform a physical examination. The agency also asked Dr. James Madison to perform a consultative physical Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") Assessment based on the medical evidence in the record. R. 636, 642-49. Additionally, the agency selected Erwin Baukus, Ph.D., to conduct a mental examination of Schweizer, and Joseph Mehr, Ph.D., to perform a consultative mental RFC. R. 652, 679-82.
Dr. Yalamanchili conducted a physical examination of Schweizer on February 22, 2011. Based upon the forty minute examination, he found her speech to be normal. R. 636-37. Dr. Yalamanchili also concluded that her cervical spine was normal and that the motion of any spinal segment or any joint in the upper extremities was not limited. R. 638. Dr. Yalamanchili noted, however, that Schweizer appeared to be in discomfort during the range of motion test on her cervical spine and upper extremities. R. 638. He diagnosed Schweizer as having glossopharyngeal neuralgia, difficulty swallowing, esophageal tear in 2009, and intermittent loss of voice. R. 640.
Dr. Madison reviewed the medical evidence and provided a consultative physical RFC assessment on March 2, 2011. R. 642-49. He concluded that Schweizer did not have any communicative, manipulative, visual, or environmental limitations. R. 645-46. He also determined that Schweizer could lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; sit, stand and/or walk (with normal breaks) for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling; occasionally climb stairs; occasionally balance; and was unable to climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds. R. 642-49.
Dr. Madison also determined that Schweizer's self-reported, symptom-related limitations were only partially credible given her medical history. R. 647. He found her claims credible to the extent that she had had a treatment history for glossopharyngeal neuralgia. R. 647. But he pointed to inconsistencies in the medical evidence that undermined her credibility in certain respects. For example, although Schweizer reported difficulty in swallowing, she had gained weight over the last few months. R. 647. Further, while she complained that she was unable to bend her head down, Dr. Yalamanchili had noted that she only had a minor decrease in the range of motion in her cervical spine. R. 647. Schweizer claimed to experience throat pain and loss of voice after speaking for five to ten minutes, but Dr. Yalamanchili had observed that her speech was normal during the forty-minute examination. R. 646-47. Finally, although Schweizer stated that she could not lift anything, could only walk ten feet, and had difficulty reaching, climbing, and kneeling, Dr. Yalamanchili had reported she had normal strength, reflexes, sensations, and gait. R. 647.
Dr. Baukus conducted a mental examination of Schweizer on March 9, 2011. He noted that the volume of her speech was a bit low, but otherwise her speech was normal with respect to articulation, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. R. 652-53. He diagnosed her as having chronic pain disorder with both psychological factors (depression and anxiety) and a general medical condition. R. 655.
On March 25, 2011, Dr. Mehr reviewed the medical evidence and provided a consultative mental RFC. R. 679-82. He determined that Schweizer had the cognitive, psychological, social, and functional capacity to ...