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Coulter v. Colvin

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

November 3, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Young B. Kim United States Magistrate Judge

         Anderson Coulter's son Anderson W. Coulter filed applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382, claiming that he was disabled by diabetes, swelling of his left foot, obesity, and hypertension.[1] (Administrative Record (“A.R.”) 101.) Anderson filed multiple applications for DIB and SSI contending that he had been disabled since 2008. After the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denied Anderson's most recent applications, Coulter (because his son had passed away by then) filed this suit seeking judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Coulter's motion is denied, the government's is granted, and the Commissioner's final decision is affirmed:

         Procedural History

         On January 13, 2012, Anderson filed the most recent of his applications for DIB and SSI, alleging that he had been disabled since November 13, 2008. (A.R. 11.) After his claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, Anderson timely requested and was granted a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) Anderson died on January 2, 2013, while his request was pending. Coulter then replaced Anderson as the claimant.

         On August 14, 2013, the ALJ held a hearing during which Coulter and a vocational expert (“VE”) provided testimony. (Id.) The ALJ found that Anderson's applications were partially subject to the doctrine of res judicata as they pertain to the period covering November 13, 2008, to January 11, 2011, because Anderson was found not disabled during that period in connection with an earlier application.[2](Id. at 16.) Accordingly, the ALJ fixed January 11, 2011, as the starting point for the period under consideration in this case and concluded that Anderson was not disabled during the relevant period. (Id.) After the Appeals Council notified Coulter that his request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied, (id. at 1-3), the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Minnick v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 929, 935 (7th Cir. 2015). Coulter filed this action seeking judicial review of the denial, (R. 1); see 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c), and the parties consented to this court's jurisdiction, (R. 8); see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).


         The ALJ considered both documentary and testimonial evidence in rendering his decision on September 13, 2013.

         A. Medical Records

         Between 2009 and 2012, Anderson received treatment at Komed Holman Health Center (“Komed”) from several physicians including Dr. Timothy Long, Dr. Murad Abdel-Qader, and Dr. Joseph Gatlin. (A.R. 236-355, 369-89, 408-28.) The medical staff regularly checked Anderson's cardiovascular and respiratory systems and treated him for diabetes, but only a small number of records reflect individualized notes from Anderson's physicians. One such note shows Anderson's doctors discussed with him “at length” the importance of not running out of medicine. (Id. at 284.) A note on the same topic expressed concern that Anderson's inability to pay for diabetes medication limited his control over his diabetes. (Id. at 305, 310.) It is also apparent that Anderson's doctors repeatedly urged him to engage in an exercise program and conform to a healthy diet. Anderson was about five and a half feet tall, and weighed more than 350 pounds. On a handful of occasions Anderson reported pain or headaches, but most often he denied pain. In 2010, when asked, Anderson regularly denied chest pain, palpitations, feeling faint, trouble breathing, shortness of breath, peripheral edema, and elevated blood pressure. (Id. at 244, 255, 289, 340, 352.) However, he complained a few times about palpitations and feeling faint. (Id. at 289, 321, 384.) In 2011 and 2012, doctors regularly performed physical examinations to evaluate Anderson's peripheral circulation and found no clubbing, cyanosis, edema, or varicosities. (See, e.g., Id. at 315, 321, 331, 376, 385, 415, 426.)

         From November 2009 to February 2011, Anderson attended several podiatry appointments with Dr. Abdel-Qader, who treated him for tinea pedis and diabetic issues affecting his feet. (Id. at 241-42, 246-47, 250-52.) Dr. Abdel-Qader's examination notes generally found Anderson's feet to be within the normal temperature gradient, with normal to cool skin temperature, and with normal to diminished hair growth. (See, e.g., Id. at 241, 246-47, 250, 262.) Notably, at his last visit with Dr. Abdel-Qader in February 2011, Dr. Abdel-Qader observed that Anderson's feet were within the normal temperature gradient and were negative for edema, although his left foot had cool skin temperature and diminished hair growth. (Id. at 326-27.) By contrast, in April 2012 Anderson made his only office visit with podiatrist Dr. Joseph Gatlin who observed edema in both of Anderson's feet. (Id. at 420-21.)

         On February 15, 2012, Anderson's treating physician, Dr. Long, completed a physical medical source statement. (Id. at 357-60.) Dr. Long reported that he had maintained contact with Anderson on a monthly to bi-monthly basis for years and had diagnosed Anderson with diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and foot pain. (Id. at 357.) Overall, Dr. Long gave Anderson a fair prognosis. (Id.) Dr. Long noted that Anderson experienced dizziness in the mornings, chronic foot pain, and anxiety. (Id. at 357-58.) He opined that Anderson could walk one or two blocks, could sit for 45 minutes and stand for 10 minutes at one time, could sit for a total of less than 2 hours per day, and could stand/walk for a total of less than 2 hours per day. (Id. at 358.) Dr. Long further opined that Anderson would need unscheduled breaks every 30 minutes, should keep his legs elevated for 50 percent of an 8-hour workday, and could rarely carry less than 10 pounds. (Id.) According to Dr. Long, his opinions of Anderson's symptoms and functional limitations were consistent with signs, clinical findings, and test results. (Id. at 360.)

         On February 28, 2012, Dr. Calixto Aquino, a Bureau of Disability Determination Services (“DDS”) medical consultant, completed a Physical Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) Assessment. (Id. at 361-68.) He opined that Anderson could occasionally lift 50 pounds, frequently lift 25 pounds, stand or walk 6 hours a day, sit for 6 hours a day, and perform unlimited pushing and pulling. (Id. at 362.) Dr. Aquino concluded that Anderson had no postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. (Id. at 363-67.) Dr. Aquino also concluded that Anderson's alleged disability was not supported by medical evidence. (Id. at 368.) According to Dr. Aquino, Anderson maintained very limited activities of daily living, but he was “capable [of] a wide range of medium activity.” (Id.) On July 3, 2012, Dr. Charles Kenney affirmed Dr. Aquino's RFC assessment. (Id. at 404-07.)

         On June 30, 2012, DDS consultant Dr. David Voss prepared a Psychiatric Review Technique form. (Id. at 390-403.) Dr. Voss concluded that Anderson had a medically determinable impairment that did not precisely satisfy the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety-related disorder. (Id. at 395.) Dr. Voss also concluded that Anderson had mild restrictions in activities of daily living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. (Id. at 400.) In forming these opinions, Dr. Voss reviewed medical evidence from Anderson's treating physicians and progress notes from Komed, specifically identifying Dr. Gatlin's and Dr. Long's records. (Id. at 402.) After reviewing Dr. Long's medical source statement, Dr. Voss observed that: (1) Dr. Long's medical records did not document any anxiety or depression; and (2) Dr. Long's progress notes from the same time period were inconsistent with the mental portion of his medical source statement. (Id.)

         B. Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing before the ALJ on August 14, 2013, Coulter testified about his son Anderson. Anderson lived with his parents and one brother. (A.R. 31.) In 2008, Anderson was terminated from his most recent job as a security guard for calling in sick too often. (Id. at 42.) Coulter testified that Anderson could not work because of health problems allegedly caused by diabetes, high blood pressure, and headaches. (Id. at 31-33.) Coulter summarized the events from the January 2013 morning when Anderson passed away after going into cardiac arrest, and explained that no autopsy was performed. (Id. at 33-37.) According to Coulter, Anderson was unable to use public transportation, could not use stairs, had difficulty walking, and had to wear special leggings and elevate his legs. (Id. at 39-41, 44.) Anderson's physical ability was so limited that Coulter “did everything for [his] son, ” including taking him to the clinic. (Id. at 38-39.)

         C. Vocational Expert Testimony

         The VE testified at the hearing that Anderson's past employment as a security guard was a semi-skilled position. (A.R. 49.) The ALJ asked the VE what work would be feasible for an individual who can lift and carry no more than 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; can stand/walk about 2 hours and sit for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal rest periods; can alternate between sitting and standing although not necessarily at will; is unable to operate foot controls, work at heights, climb ladders, or frequently negotiate stairs; can only occasionally crouch, kneel, or crawl; and is limited to jobs without complex or detailed tasks. (Id.) The VE responded that such a person could work as a hand sorter, assembler, or packager. (Id. at 50.)

         D. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ evaluated Anderson's claims under the required five-step analysis. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). As an initial matter, the ALJ determined that Anderson met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2013. (A.R. 13.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that Anderson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 13, 2008. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Anderson suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Anderson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 14.) The ALJ specifically considered the criteria under Listings 4.00(H) and 9.00(5) to evaluate Anderson's cardiac issues and diabetes. (Id.) He also evaluated whether Anderson's obesity ...

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