United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
D. Johnston United States Magistrate Judge.
Thomas Smith brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §405(g),
challenging the denial of social security disability
worked as a welder for a number of years. In late 2013, when
he was 41 years old, he began experiencing pain and numbness
on his right side. After an MRI showed degenerative disc
disease, he had spinal surgery (cervical laminoplasty at
¶ 3-6), performed by Dr. Christopher Sliva, in the
middle of December 2013. Plaintiff returned to work, but kept
experiencing problems, causing him to stop working in April
2014. On June 9, 2014, Dr. Sliva operated a second time,
performing a cervical discectomy and fusion at ¶ 4-5 and
C5-6. R. 244. On June 18, 2014, plaintiff filed his
disability insurance application. R. 17.
March 26, 2015, a hearing was held before the administrative
law judge (“ALJ”). Plaintiff testified that he
completed the ninth grade; that he drove a car once a week;
that he lived with his wife and 19-year old son; that his
wife worked part-time; that could shower and bathe himself,
although he had trouble washing his hair; that he did some
chores around the house such as sweeping “a little
bit” and picking things off the floor. On a typical
day, he would “just try to get comfortable, sit for a
little bit, lay down  on and off, get up and move
around.” R. 37.
stopped working because he “had pain shooting down
[his] right side, and [his] hand was going numb.” R.
40. He also had neck pain making it hard to move his head
left or right or up or down. This pain emerged after the
second surgery. He still had weakness in his right arm and
numbness in his fingers, specifically his thumb and index
finger, which prevented him from grabbing and holding things,
which he needed to do on his welding job. When asked if
anything made the pain worse, he stated that the pain
“stays about consistent, ” which he rated as 5 to
5 and 1/2 on a 10-point scale. The pain woke him up at night
and he was only able to sleep three or four hours. He was
seeing a pain specialist, Dr. Vo, who gave him several
injections. Plaintiff was taking Norco three times a day, as
well as Lyrica, Cymbalta (antidepressant), and Ambien (sleep
medication). The ALJ asked plaintiff about his hands and
arms, and he stated that he could lift his arms straight
overhead but not in a jumping-jack motion. He had no
restrictions on the use of his left arm. He had trouble
walking and could only walk a block-and-half without too much
trouble. He stated that he could sit comfortably for about 30
to 45 minutes at a time and then would experience pain down
his right leg and in the back of his neck.
plaintiff testified, a medical expert, Dr. Sai Nimmagadda,
and a vocational expert (“VE”), Thomas Dunleavy,
testified. Relevant portions of their testimony are discussed
April 3, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following
severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the
cervical spine status post laminoplasty, foraminotomy, and
discectomy with fusion, right upper extremity radiculopathy,
cervical spine myelopathy, and cervical spine myloemalacia,
and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.” R.
15. The ALJ found that plaintiff did not meet any listing and
that he had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to work several jobs. The ALJ's
rationales are discussed below.
reviewing court may enter judgment “affirming,
modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner],
with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.”
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If supported by substantial
evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings are
conclusive. Substantial evidence exists if there is enough
evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to determine that
the decision's conclusion is supportable. Richardson
v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399-401 (1971). Accordingly,
the reviewing court cannot displace the decision by
reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent
credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529
F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). However, the Seventh Circuit
has emphasized that review is not merely a rubber stamp.
Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir.
2002). A reviewing court must conduct a critical review of
the evidence before affirming the Commissioner's
decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665
(7th Cir. 2008). Even when adequate record evidence exists to
support the Commissioner's decision, the decision will
not be affirmed if the Commissioner does not build an
accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the
conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th
opening brief is 23 pages, and contains six major arguments.
As is often the case, the major arguments contain branching
sub-arguments, making the total number greater than six.
Also, somewhat confusingly, several arguments re-surface in
multiple sections. The net effect is that plaintiff's
arguments are interconnected and not always easy to discuss
in isolation. After reviewing the briefs, the Court finds
that the following arguments justify a remand.
Neck and Finger Problems.
raises two similar arguments directed at specific functional
limitations included the ALJ's list of RFC limitations.
The two at issue are the following: (i) plaintiff could
“frequently finger/feel with the thumb and second
finger of the right hand” and (ii) he could
“frequently flex and laterally rotate [his]
neck.” R. 16. Plaintiff asserts that he cannot do these
activities “frequently” but only
“occasionally” or perhaps not even at all and
argues that the ALJ provided only a vague explanation for his
conclusion and improperly “played doctor.”
Plaintiff also complains that the ALJ's reasoning is
further obscured by numerous INAUDIBLE markings in the
Court begins with the finger problems. To briefly summarize,
plaintiff complained about right finger problems when he
first visited a doctor sometime around November 2013. R. 267.
At the hearing, he testified that he was still suffering from
these problems. Dr. Nimmagadda, testified as follows about
plaintiff's finger and thumb numbness:
Q Okay, because there [are] some physical findings of
numbness with the thumb and the finger, is there support for
that in the record?
A I, I - my private feeling is that the involvement of
(INAUDIBLE) a finding, but I couldn't find any support
Q So, there's nothing in the diagnostic tests (INAUDIBLE)
to support that?
A Correct, so mainly the C5 C6 is up there off the upper part
of the arm.
R. 57-58. Then a few pages later in the transcript, he gave
what appears to be a second answer, testifying as follows:
A [R]egarding manipulative limitations, reaching in all
directions, [plaintiff] would be limited to occasionally.
Q With both his shoulders or just one?
A Just, just the right.
Q So, occasionally reach all directions, with the right upper