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Skutnik v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

January 12, 2015

GRZEGORZ SKUTNIK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

MARY M. ROWLAND, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Grzegorz Skutnik filed this action seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Disability Insur-ance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act). 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 423 et seq. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

I. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

To recover DIB, a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the Act.[1] York v. Massanari, 155 F.Supp.2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001). A person is disabled if he or she is unable to perform "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." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). In determin-ing whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the Commissioner conducts a standard five-step inquiry:

1. Is the claimant presently unemployed?
2. Does the claimant have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that interferes with basic work-related activi-ties and is expected to last at least 12 months?
3. Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impair-ments enumerated in the regulations?
4. Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?
5. Is the claimant unable to perform any other work?

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520; see Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). "An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disa-bled." Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985). "The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner." Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for DIB on December 7, 2010, alleging that he became disabled on November 4, 2010, because of back problems. (R. at 41). The application was de-nied initially and on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. ( Id. at 12, 41-44). On May 11, 2012, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). ( Id. at 19-40). The ALJ also heard testimony from Linda Gels, a vocational expert (VE) ( id. at 29-31, 35-36), and Laura Rosch, D.O., a medical expert (ME) ( id. at 25-29, 37-40, 48).

The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits on June 7, 2012. (R. at 48-57). Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity from November 4, 2010, the alleged onset date. ( Id. at 50). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's arthritis of the left knee and status post total left knee replacement are severe im-pairments. ( Id. ). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severi-ty of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. ( Id. at 50-51).

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC)[2] and de-termined that he could perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). (R. at 51). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. ( Id. at 56). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, his vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was "not disabled" under Medical-Vocational Guidelines § 202.18.[3] ( Id. ). Plaintiff met the criteria for dispositive appli-cation of § 202.18 because Plaintiff was defined as a younger individual who was capable of the full range of light work, and suffered no nonexertional limitations. ( Id. at 57). The ALJ noted that even if Plaintiff were limited to sedentary work, a finding of not disabled would be directed by the Grids. ( Id. ) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. ( Id. ).

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 16, 2013. (R. at 1-3). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the Act. In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regula-tions. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it "reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in gen-eral, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Id. The Court's task is "limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial "if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion." Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance." Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). "In addition to relying on substantial evidence, the ALJ must also explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review." Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it "must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). The Court must critically review the ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ has built an "accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion." Young, 362 F.3d at 1002. Where the Commissioner's decision "lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent mean-ingful review, the case must be remanded." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).

IV. MEDICAL EVIDENCE

Plaintiff has a history of back problems. He underwent surgery in Poland in 2007. (R. at 26, 186, 242, 277, 302). Plaintiff's symptoms included pain radiating to his extremities and loss of sensation ( id. at 186-91), and were probably exacerbated by operating a jackhammer for a long period of time in an awkward position ( id. at 242). These symptoms caused Plaintiff to exhibit an unbalanced gait and muscle weakness, and led Plaintiff to seek various modes of treatment, culminating in a second surgery. ( Id. at 204-20, 222-25, 228-30, 270-71, 307-08). Plaintiff's im-pairment prevented him from taking work as a bricklayer, his longtime occupation. ( Id. at 24, 50).

In January 2010, Plaintiff sought treatment for low back and right leg pain. (R. at 228-30, 247-59). Following referral by Andrzej Indyk, M.D., Plaintiff underwent radiology examination. ( Id. at 248-57). An MRI revealed moderate degenerative changes at L3-L4, L4-L5, and L5-S1 with myositis ossificans extending from the left transverse process of L2 to the left transverse process of L5. ( Id. at 250-51, 256-57). Examination showed sizable L4-L5 central disc herniation, mild disc bulging at L3-L4 with minimal bilateral foraminal stenosis and bilateral facet arthropathy, and small disc herniation[4] at L5-S1, with borderline central stenosis and bilateral fo-raminal stenosis. ( Id. at 250-51). Plaintiff was referred to a neurologist, Ralph Cab-in, M.D.

On February 24, 2010, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Cabin, who noted weak-ness on dorsiflexion, a "very antalgic" gait, [5] a positive straight-leg raise at 40 de-grees on the right and 60 degrees on the left, and decreased sensation of cold in the feet, right greater than left. (R. at 242-46). Around this time, Plaintiff complained of pain in the lower back radiating to the gluteal region, and leg pain, up to 6/10, extending to the ankle on the left. ( Id. ). Dr. Cabin recommended analgesics and conservative management including physical therapy. ( Id. at 244-45). Plaintiff un-derwent a course of physical therapy comprising at least nine visits.[6] By April 2010, Plaintiff reported no pain, and had returned to work. ( Id. at 239).

On December 4, 2010, Plaintiff reported low back pain, and began chiropractic treatment with Allen Buresz, D.C. (R. at 204-20, 317). Dr. Buresz opined that con-servative treatment would not be effective, and that Plaintiff should schedule sur-gery. ( Id. at 317). Treatment from Dr. Buresz included spinal manipulation, mas-sage, homeopathic medicines, and ultrasound. ( Id. ). Plaintiff complained of pain in the back, gluteal region, and legs, ( Id. ), the latter being more severe when sitting, ( Id. at 206, 207). During this time, starting in Feb 2011, Plaintiff returned to treat-ment with Dr. Indyk, and was administered epidural blocks.[7] ( Id. at 222-25). Plain-tiff reported to Dr. Buresz that the injections were 50% effective at reducing his pain. ( Id. at 204).

On February 18, 2011, Dilip Patel, M.D., examined Plaintiff at the request of the DDS. (R. at 186-191). Dr. Patel noted intact strength and sensation, and a normal gait without need of an assistive device, a positive straight leg raise on the right at 40 degrees, and negative on the left. ( Id. at 187). Dr. Patel found that Plaintiff was able to heel-toe walk with difficulty, to squat and arise with moderate difficulty, and to get on and off the exam table with difficulty, and observed moderate muscle spasm. ( Id. at 188). The doctor found a reduced range of motion to 50/90 flexion, 5/25 extension, and 10/25 lateral bending. ( Id. at 189). The doctor diagnosed lum-bosacral degenerative disc disease, a prolapsed disc with radiculopathy symptoms. ( Id. ).

On March 2, 2011, Frank Jimenez, M.D., a DDS consultant, reviewed the medi-cal records and completed an RFC assessment. (R. at 196-203). He concluded that Plaintiff could occasionally lift 20 pounds, frequently lift 10 pounds, and could stand, walk, and sit about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. ( Id. at 197). Dr. Jimenez further ...


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