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Harrington v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Peoria Division

March 10, 2017




         Now before the Court are the Plaintiff, James Harrington's, Motion for Summary Judgment (D. 11)[1] and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance (D. 16). Both parties have provided supporting Memoranda thereto. (D. 12, 17). For the reasons stated herein, the Court DENIES the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS the Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance.[2]


         On May 7, 2012, Harrington filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (DIB) alleging disability beginning on July 12, 2010. His claim was denied initially on September 7, 2012, and denied upon reconsideration on April 5, 2013. On May 10, 2013, Harrington filed a request for a hearing on his application for DIB. Harrington appeared at the hearing before the Honorable Susan Sarsfield (ALJ) on June 3, 2014. He was represented by an attorney. Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Harrington's claim on July 2, 2014. The Appeals Council denied Harrington's request for review on December 2, 2015, making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Harrington filed the instant civil action, seeking review of the ALJ's Decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), on January 6, 2016.


         At the time Harrington applied for benefits, he was 51 years old. He was living in a home, in Canton, Illinois with his ex-wife, who earns income. Harrington earned a GED, but has not worked since July 12, 2010. On the various SSA forms he submitted, Harrington indicated that he has chronic lower back pain, arthritis, headaches, and hypertension, which substantially limit his ability to work. (D. 5 at pg. 229; 259)

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Harrington stated his mobility is limited because he is in chronic pain. Specifically, he said his neck is almost continually in pain and his lower back flares up with debilitating pain if he lifts more than twenty pounds or walks more than approximately half a block. Harrington testified that his neck pain is only alleviated by steroid injections into certain trigger points. He also said that when his back is in pain, the pain radiates down to his legs. Generally speaking, he can sit down for approximately an hour at a time, after which he needs to stand up and walk around briefly. Harrington estimated that he had been to the ER approximately three times in the year prior to the hearing due to pain from his neck and/or back.

         Harrington testified that his ex-wife drives him around, does all the grocery shopping for them and runs his other errands. He said he does not drive often because, on the advice of his doctor, he avoids doing so given the medication he takes. In addition to blood pressure medicine, Harrington takes morphine and oxycodone two and three times a day, respectively. He said these narcotics make it difficult for him to concentrate and he tires easily. Harrington also stated that he takes medication for anxiety and depression, but has never been hospitalized for either condition. He testified that he has no other mental health issues or problems concentrating.

         Harrington said the oxycodone and morphine he takes dulls the pain in his back and neck slightly, and only for approximately two and a half hours at a time. He stated that his doctors are aware of this but have not recommended him for pain management. Harrington asserts that his pain is increasing and that his overall muscle strength has lessened. He uses a TENS unit, which puts electric pulses into his neck, for approximately three hours a day and averages the same amount of sleep most nights. Harrington said that if he spends any more time on his back, his neck gets too stiff.

         Harrington has not had surgery on his back or neck and has been advised by his doctor that he is not a candidate for surgery. He has not been prescribed a brace or splint for his neck or lower back, but sometimes utilizes a walking cane for added stability when needed.

         Harrington testified that he could not work due to his pain. By way of example, he stated that two weeks before the hearing he used a hedge trimmer for approximately fifteen minutes-a task he did not normally perceive as strenuous. He said this caused him severe neck pain and a headache. He asserted that the pain that ensues in his neck as a result of such activity, which he thinks possibly leads to headaches, simply will not allow him to continue working. Harrington testified that one of his doctors attributes his headaches to disc degeneration in his neck. He says he wakes up every day with a headache, which lasts anywhere from two to twelve hours-sometimes longer. Harrington said he avoids using his entire upper body in order to keep his reoccurring headaches at bay.

         Harrington has applied for jobs since July 2010. He has approximately sixteen years of experience doing auto body work but can no longer do such work.

         Instead, he has applied for menial jobs at local stores and restaurants. Harrington thought that he could do the work required of him at these jobs, including that of stocking shelves, with the limitation that he not be required to lift too much weight. He said he needed the money and assumed that if he were hired, he would take extra medication to cope with the ensuing pain as needed.

         Harrington stated that he recently completed a month of physical therapy. He said he can take care of his own basic hygiene needs and get dressed without assistance ninety five percent of the time. For the remaining five percent, his lower back pain limits his mobility and he needs assistance. Harrington said he recovers from his back pain in anywhere from a week to a month.

         Vocational Expert, Dennis Gustafson, also testified at Harrington's hearing. In response to hypothetical questions from the ALJ, Gustafson opined that someone in Harrington's precise position had no transferable skills that could be utilized in other occupations classified as light or sedentary. He said there were other light and sedentary jobs, however, that such people could do. Examples included working as a cashier, housekeeper, or in clerical-related occupations. Gustafson explained that these positions could be found in a few different industries and provided statistics on the approximate number of people employed in these occupations both in Illinois and nationally.

         In response to direct questioning from the ALJ, Gustafson affirmed that the inability to engage in constant movement of the head and neck from side to side would have no effect on such a person's ability to perform the sedentary jobs he mentioned. If the jobs were limited to frequent movement, but not constant, however, he said that would impact the person's ability to perform the light jobs. Gustafson found that two minutes standing or walking out of every hour working during the sedentary jobs he listed would not have a substantial impact on the job numbers he provided. He stated that if a hypothetical subject in Harrington's shoes were off task as much as fifteen percent of the time, they would be found inadequate and ultimately, unemployed.


         In her Decision, the ALJ determined that Harrington had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, headaches, and high blood pressure (20 CFR 404.1520(c)). (D. 5 at pg. 40). In so doing, she also rejected the categorization of some of Harrington's other impairments as severe-including his anxiety and depression. Notably, the ALJ also stated that while she “has considered the claimant's pain from degenerative disc disease, the medical evidence does not establish an independent medically determinable impairment of chronic pain syndrome.” Id. at pg. 41.

         Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Harrington “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).” Id. She found that “the objective medical evidence of record does not support a finding that [Harrington] experiences symptoms or limitations of a severity sufficient to meet or medically equal the requirements set forth in any listing or section.” Id. She crafted the following Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) for Harrington:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he is restricted to occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and he must avoid concentrated exposure to noise.

         Id. at pg. 44. The ALJ further recounted Harrington's testimony at the hearing regarding his condition and the limitations he claimed in his functional reports. Following protocol, she determined there were medical impairments reasonably expected to cause Harrington's symptoms. The ALJ found, ...

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