United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
LAURENT H. MARTEAU, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARIA VALDEZ, Magistrate Judge.
This action was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Laurent H. Marteau's claims for Disability Insurance Benefits. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 28] is denied, and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment [Doc. No. 35] is granted.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On June 17, 2008, Marteau filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits alleging disability since January 1, 2003. The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which he timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on January 20, 2010. Claimant personally appeared and testified at the hearing. He was not represented by counsel at that time. Medical expert Dr. William Newman and vocational expert Cheryl Hoiseth also testified.
On January 13, 2011, the ALJ denied Marteau's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits, finding him not disabled under the Social Security Act. The Social Security Administration Appeals Council then denied his request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by the District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Marteau was fifty-one years old at the time of the ALJ hearing. He had previously worked as a gig grinder operator and a line worker. Plaintiff injured his back in 1998 or 1999 after falling on ice and saw Dr. Thomas Gagnon, a naturopath chiropractor, for the injury from 1999 through August 2002. His pain began to improve with muscle relaxers, but an automobile accident in December 2000 worsened his injury. He was seen by Dr. Krebs for that injury on January 22, 2001, alleging pain in the low back on the left side, extending into the left hip. An x-ray of his lumbar spine dated September 30, 2002 showed degenerative joint changes of the facet joints at the L5-S1 level, with mild degenerative changes at L2-L3. No tenderness of the lower back was noted. He was diagnosed with a sprained back and advised to partake in physical therapy and exercise for his back pain. Marteau was injured in another car accident on November 4, 2002, resulting in back, shoulder, and knee pain.
He injured his left ulnar nerve on the job in 2001, and after returning to work, he worked light duty for about six months while wearing a brace. Plaintiff is right-hand dominant. While working light duty, Plaintiff made copies, worked on a computer, answered the telephone, and delivered parts. He was limited to lifting up to one pound, and he needed to use both hands or his right arm only to lift that weight. Plaintiff ultimately quit working on August 16, 2002. Marteau testified that it was dangerous for him to continue his work in a tool and die shop, because he sometimes has trouble making a fist, opening his hand (which he described as "like a claw"), and gripping. He claimed that he took only two pills for his left hand swelling but experienced eight months of side effects.
An EMG performed in February 2002 showed that Marteau had rather severe left ulnar neuropathy with muscle weakness and atrophy, and a claw left hand. A February 19, 2002 note from Dr. Bruce Dolitsky opined that Marteau had cubital tunnel syndrome and recommended surgery. Marteau declined the surgery after learning of the risks, stating that he wanted to think about it. The testifying medical expert, Dr. Newman, opined that the contemplated surgery is relatively simple and minor, requiring only about two weeks of recovery and having a nearly 100% success rate. A March 26, 2003 note from Dr. Craig Phillips, an orthopedic surgeon, identified obvious stigma of ulnar nerve dysfunction with extremely weak abduction and adduction of the fingers and a loss of musculature. Dr. Phillips recommended that Marteau undergo a decompression with anterior transposition of the ulnar nerve, and Plaintiff agreed to have the procedure performed, although it appears he never did so. Marteau testified that he was thinking of having surgery in the near future.
Around December 2007, Marteau dislocated his knee. He wore a cast and was "laid up" for several months. He claims the knee still bothers him and "pops out."
Marteau claimed he can lift with his left hand if he holds his hand flat, but he experiences pain shooting down his arm and up to his shoulder. He stated that while he can drive, he has difficulty gripping the steering wheel, and it hurts to turn the wheel. Plaintiff alleges his back seizes up after about five minutes of lifting, and he can only lift five to ten pounds into his trunk if he wears a back brace. He was able to cut a neighbor's grass once a month in 2008, and after doing so, his left hand would swell up. Marteau is a practicing Jehovah's Witness, and as part of his faith, he walks about a block or two, going door-to-door proselytizing his faith. As of the date of the hearing, Marteau was not taking any type of narcotic or over-the-counter medication for his pain.
B. Vocational Expert Testimony
The ALJ asked the Vocational Expert ("VE") whether a hypothetical person with the same age, education, and work experience as Plaintiff, and a residual functional capacity ("RFC") at the light exertional level, limited to only occasional fine manipulation with the non-dominant hand, could perform any of Plaintiff's past work. The VE said that the person could not, but other jobs would be available, including counter clerk (4, 700 jobs in the fourteen-county Chicago area), lobby attendant (5, 400 jobs), housekeeping cleaner (10, 000 jobs), and cafeteria attendant (6, 800 jobs).
C. ALJ Decision
The ALJ found at step one that Marteau had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of January 1, 2003 through his date last insured of June 30, 2008. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Claimant had severe impairments of ulnar palsy of his left hand and back strain. The ALJ concluded at step three that the impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal a Listing. The ALJ then determined that Marteau retained the RFC to perform light work. Specifically, the ALJ opined that Plaintiff could frequently lift or carry ten pounds, occasionally lift or carry twenty pounds, stand or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit for about two hours in an eight-hour workday, with the additional restriction that he could only occasionally perform fine manipulation with his left hand. Having found at step four that Plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work, the ALJ found at step five, ...