United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER 
I. SCHENKIER United States Magistrate Judge
Suzana Rodojcic Cukovic seeks reversal and remand of the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
("Commissioner") denying her claim for disability
insurance benefits under Section 216(1) and 223(d) of the
Social Security Act (doc. #13: PL's Mem.). The
Commissioner seeks affirmance of the decision denying
benefits (doc. # 20: Def, 's Mem.). The motion is fully
briefed. For the following reasons, Ms. Cukovic's motion
is granted and the Commissioner's motion is denied.
Cukovic applied for benefits on October 22, 2008, alleging
she became disabled on May 1, 2007 due to arthritis in her
arms, elbows, hip, and legs, as well as because of a pinched
nerve (R. 211, 354-56, 378-S7). Her date last insured was
December 31, 2012 (R. 21, 55-56). The application was denied
initially on February 10, 2009, and upon reconsideration on
May 19, 2009 (R. 211-12). Ms. Cukovic, represented by
counsel, appeared and testified before administrative law
judge ("ALJ") Patricia A. Bucci on December 6, 2010
(R. 172-210). Vocational expert ("VE") Jill Radke
also testified. (Id.). The ALJ issued her written
decision denying Ms. Cukovic's application on January 19,
2011 (R. 216-26). The Appeals Council granted review and
remanded the case for further proceedings on May 9, 2012,
directing that the ALJ further consider Ms. Cukovic's RFC
regarding her concentration abilities and possible mental
impairments (R. 232-33).
Marlene R. Abrams held a new hearing on January 28, 2013, at
which Ms. Cukovic was represented by counsel, and VE James
Radke and Medical Expert ("ME") Hugh Savage
testified (R. 78-171). The case was then reassigned to David
Skidmore, another ALJ, who held a third hearing on February
12, 2014 (R. 52-77). Ms. Cukovic was represented by counsel
and VE Ed Pagella testified (Id.). The ALJ issued
his decision denying Ms. Cukovic's application on June
24, 2014 (R. 21-44). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Cukovic's request for review and her request to reopen
the decision, making the ALJ's ruling the final decision
of the Commissioner (R. 1-4, 8). See Shauger v.
Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 695 (7th Cir. 2012).
begin with a summary of the administrative record. Part A
briefly sets forth Ms. Cukovic's background, followed by
her medical record in Part B. In Part C, we discuss the
testimony provided at the hearing before the ALJ. Part D sets
forth the ALJ's written opinion.
Cukovic was 29 years old at her alleged disability onset
date, and she was 36 years old at the time of her last
hearing (R. 52, 211, 354-56). Ms. Cukovic completed high
school and obtained her loan originator's license (R.
89). Ms. Cukovic's past work included working in data
entry and as a loan originator (R. 380). Ms. Cukovic claims
she stopped working on May 1, 2007 due to her medical
conditions (R. 379). This is the same day as her alleged
disability onset date (R.21).
While not an exhaustive recitation of the voluminous medical
evidence contained in the 1, 247-page record, the discussion
below provides a general overview. Ms. Cukovic specifically
challenges the weight accorded to the medical opinions of
Drs. Jasminka Kostic, Herbert Engelhard, and Julian Freeman,
which are summarized below.
Cukovic was in an automobile accident on June 6, 2006 (R.
485-87). Her diagnoses the day after included a headache and
pain in her neck, left shoulder, back, and lower back (R,
487). MRIs on June 14, 2006 indicated her brain and thoracic
spine were normal, but that there were degenerative changes
in her C5-6 and C6-7 discs in her cervical spine, 3 to 4 mm
disc herniations at the C5-6 and C6-7 levels, and a
generalized left lateral recess narrowing at the C6-7 level
(R. 497-99). Ms. Cukovic continued to complain about pain to
various physicians, with a record from Neurologist Milena
Appleby from December 11, 2006 specifically indicating neck
pain, lower back pain, dizziness, migraines three to four
times per week, and tingling on her left side (R. 483,
488-99, 556-60). Ms. Cukovic's complaints of back pain,
headaches, bilateral elbow pain, and depression continued
through 2010 (R. 875-80). in early 2011, Ms. Cukovic was
prescribed Norco twice per day by Dr. Sanija Bajramovic, and
throughout 2011 she complained of headaches, neck pain, lower
back pain, dizziness, and elbow pain to Drs. Bajramovic and
Jasminka Kostic (R. 864, 870-74, 978-1007, 1030-35). Ms.
Cukovic states in November 2011 that she experienced impaired
vision, slurred speech, and nausea with her headaches (R.
950, 954). Medical records from Dr, Susarme Gonzalez show Ms.
Cukovic took ten Norco tablets per day as of August 7, 2012
Cukovic also was treated by Dr. Sylvia Santos, qualified
mental health professional, Marie Richard-Jackson, and
licensed social worker, Francois Jolie, for mental health
issues, including depression and anxiety, for the period of
2009 to 2012 (R. 577, 632-78, 770-71, 864, 870, 906, 1040-68,
1078-83). She took Lorazepam, Xanax, Abilify, and Lexapro for
anxiety and nerves (R. 577, 770). Ms. Cukovic was diagnosed
with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder in 2009
Cukovic's treating physicians offered opinions concerning
her limitations. Dr. Kostic treated Ms. Cukovic from some
earlier point (unspecified in the record) until December 12,
2006, and then again after December 20, 2008 (R. 451). On
December 5, 2010, Dr. Kostic noted that Ms. Cukovic had
experienced neck pain, lower back pain, bilateral elbow pain,
and major depression since June 7, 2006 (R.
766-69). Dr. Kostic stated that because of her
medical issues, Ms. Cukovic could only sit or stand for ten
minutes, could never lift more than ten pounds and only
rarely lift less than ten pounds, had significant limitations
on her ability to use her hands, fingers, and arms, had pain
that constantly interfered with her concentration, and had
emotional factors contributing to the severity of her pain
(Id.). Dr. Kostic opined that Ms. Cukovic would miss
more than four days of work each month (R. 769). Dr. Kostic
further opined that Ms. Cukovic was not a malingerer (R.
physician, Dr. Engelhard, stated on February 12, 2013 that he
had treated Ms. Cukovic since November 15, 2011 (R. 1184-86).
Dr. Engelhard noted that Ms. Cukovic had severe chronic
degenerative disc disease and chronic lower back pain that
presented with symptoms of neck, arm, back, and leg pain, as
well as numbness and weakness in her arms (Id.). Dr.
Engelhard stated Ms. Cukovic could never crawl, work above
her shoulders, perform gross or fine manipulation, and that
she could only seldomly sit, stand, or walk in an eight-hour
day, climb ladders or stairs, twist, bend or stoop, squat or
kneel, or reach (R. 1185). Dr. Engelhard opined that Ms.
Cukovic could not sustain a regular 40-hour week, that she
would need to miss work frequently, and that her ability to
concentrate was compromised (Id.). He further opined
that Ms. Cukovic had difficulties concentrating because of
medications such as hydrocodone (R. 1186). Dr. Engelhard
stated that Ms. Cukovic's complaints were consistent
while he saw her over a period longer than one year
Freeman was retained by Ms. Cukovic to perform a medical
record review and he found that Ms. Cukovic's migraine
headaches met Listing 11.03 since at least May 2008; and,
that her spinal stenosis in the cervical spine with
radiculopathies and cord impingement equaled Listing 1.04A,
C, and 11.08 since at least November 2009 (R. 1198). Dr.
Freeman opined the headaches would cause at least one
instance of inability to work per week, lasting six to eight
hours (R. 1204). Dr. Freeman limited Ms. Cukovic to lifting
only two to three pounds occasionally as of November 2009,
and opined that as of May 2010, Ms. Cukovic had limitations