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Kallenbach v. Colvin

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

October 11, 2016

Patrick D. Kallenbach, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Iain D. Johnston United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Patrick D. Kallenbach brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), challenging the denial of social security disability benefits. At issue is whether the administrative law judge was justified in discounting plaintiff's allegations of persistent and severe back pain.


         In June 2012, plaintiff filed his disability applications, claiming back pain as his chief complaint.[1] He was then 48 years old and had worked for a number of years as a fork truck operator, truck loader, and general laborer, among other jobs, including a ten-year stint as a body shop mechanic and a five year stint as a laborer in a warehouse. R. 206, 258.

         On September 19, 2014, a hearing was held before the administrative law judge (“ALJ”).

         Plaintiff testified about how his ongoing pain would make it difficult to work. To quote from one of several descriptions, plaintiff stated the following:

Well, I've been having just terrible hip and back pain, numbness, and when I go to lift my leg up some of the times, my leg won't lift high enough and I'll trip on steps and sometimes rocks. Just a terrible back pain, shoots down my legs, down to my feet and sometimes straight up my back and my muscles tighten up so tight from all that it gives me headaches, just terrible pain, back pain and leg pain. Constant pretty much, I'm in pain 24/7, sometimes it gets really bad where I have to try to crawl. There's been times when I tried to call and stand up just to go to the bathroom and can't do it. It's just terrible. It gets frustrating.

         R. 37-38. He testified that he even had pain while sitting and that it intrudes while he is doing tasks. R. 42, 45 (he cannot “watch one movie without getting up or hurting so bad”). The ALJ asked plaintiff whether his doctor had recommended surgery or other treatments, and plaintiff stated that his doctor “mentioned surgery” and was “talking about sending [him] to a pain doctor and then a neurologist.” R. 47.

         Dr. Ronald Semerdjian testified as the impartial medical expert.[2] His testimony proved to be central to the ALJ's decision. Although Dr. Semerdjian acknowledged that plaintiff's back symptoms had existed “for a long period of time, ” he also noted that “[w]hat's absent is a pattern of physical findings, objective physical findings.” R. 50. He then reviewed the medical record in some detail, pointing out many normal or mild findings on exams or tests, such as plaintiff being able to walk 50 feet without any assistive device and having a normal heel to toe gait. He also noted that there were some abnormal findings, such as limitation in range of motion of the lumbar spine and some positive straight leg raising tests. His conclusion was as follows:

I think [plaintiff] would be capable of sitting six of eight hours, standing and walking, if I went purely on the neurologic exams, I'd have to give him six of eight. If I include the history, I'd have to say two of eight.

R. 54. There was a brief follow-up by about the second half of the opinion and the reference to plaintiff's “history.” Dr. Semerdjian stated that plaintiff's ongoing pain was “just something not supported by significant objective evidence.” R. 54.

         Plaintiff's counsel then asked Dr. Semerdjian about the opinion of Dr. Julio Santiago, plaintiff's treating physician in 2014, who completed a two-page form opining about various limitations of plaintiff (e.g. missing four days a month of work) that, if credited, would mean that plaintiff was disabled. Dr. Semerdjian identified two points of disagreement. First, he believed that Dr. Santiago overestimated plaintiff's lifting abilities. Unlike Dr. Santiago, Dr. Semerdjian believed that, “if [plaintiff has] that much discomfort in his back, lifting 50 pounds occasionally and 25 frequently [] is beyond his capacity.” R. 58. Second, he noted that Dr. Santiago listed lumbar disc disease as plaintiff's impairment but then claimed that plaintiff had fingering and handling limitations. Dr. Semerdjian explained: “I can't draw any relationship between lumbar disc disease and compromise in one's ability to feel, handle.” R. 59.

         On November 24, 2014, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of “degenerative disc disease; bilateral osteoarthritis of the hips; [and] allegations of chronic pain and obesity.” R. 12. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to do light work. The basic theory, espoused by both the ALJ and Dr. Semerdjian, was that plaintiff's claim of “extreme pain” was “disproportionate” to the “generally mild to moderate diagnostic findings with ...

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