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Murphy v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2017

KAREN MURPHY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Sidney I. Schenkier, Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Karen Murphy ("Ms. Murphy" or "plaintiff) has filed a motion seeking reversal and remand of the partially favorable decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") finding that Ms. Murphy was disabled and entitled to Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") as of April 13, 2007, but that her disability -- and thus her disability benefits -- ended on December 1, 2008 because medical improvement occurred (doc. # 7: PL's Mot. for Summ. J. at 1). The Commissioner has filed a response asking the Court to affirm its decision (doc. # 19: Def.'s Resp.). For the reasons that follow, we deny Ms. Murphy's motion and affirm the Commissioner's decision to award benefits for a closed period from April 13, 2007 to December 1, 2008.


         Ms. Murphy originally filed her application for DIB on September 29, 2008, alleging she became disabled on April 13, 2007 (R, 753). In November 2010, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") recommended that Ms. Murphy's application be denied in its entirety (R. 13-28), and the Appeals Council adopted the recommendation and denied benefits (R. 1-8). After exhausting her administrative remedies, Ms. Murphy sought review in federal district court, which affirmed the ALJ's decision. However, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the agency for further proceedings. Murphy v. Colvin, 759 F, 3d 811 (7th Cir. 2014). Another ALJ held a hearing on June 10, 2015, and on November 4, 2015, the ALJ issued a partially favorable opinion, finding that Ms. Murphy was disabled from April 13, 2007 through November 30, 2008, but that her disability ended on December 1, 2008 (R. 748-65). The Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's determination, making it the final opinion of the Commissioner (R. 898-901). See 20 C.F.R § 404.981; Shaugerv. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 695 (7th Cir. 2012).


         On April 13, 2007, Ms. Murphy suffered an acute cerebrovascular accident (CVA or stroke); specifically, a left carotid artery dissection with left cerebral infarction (tear in arterial wall and obstruction of blood supply) (R. 434-36, 442).[3]Once discharged, Ms. Murphy received treatment from neurologist, Joseph H. Mayer, M.D., at Pronger Smith Medical Care ("Pronger"). For the remainder of 2007, Ms. Murphy presented with occasional right arm and hand numbness and pain, right hand loss of proprioception (sense of position and spatial orientation), mild aphasia (difficulty communicating), and headaches (see, e.g., R. 306-12, 317-18, 321, 335, 338-40, 346, 529-31, 541, 549-51). During certain periods in 2007, she received physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy for these symptoms (R. 543-45).

         Magnetic resonance angiography ("MRA") of the carotid vessels in March 2008 showed that the degree of stenosis (narrowing) in Ms. Murphy's left internal carotid artery had improved since an MRA in May 2007, but stenosis was still approximately 70 percent (R. 300, 358-59). In April 2008, Dr. Mayer reported that Ms. Murphy "still noted waxing and waning paresthesias [pins and needles sensations] over the right side of her body" and there was a moderate decrease in proprioception on the right side; at that time, her primary complaint was nightly headaches, which preceded her stroke (R. 300). Ms. Murphy's speech was generally fluent, but she had some mild word retrieval difficulty (Id.). She had good muscle strength and tone in all four extremities, rapid alternating finger movements were normal, and her gait and tandem gait were normal (Id.).

         In July 2008, Dr. Mayer noted that Ms. Murphy's headaches were "clearly improved;" she did not use her prescription for gabapentin (nerve pain medication) and she occasionally took Fioricet (an analgesic) when over-the-counter medications did not help (R. 299). Ms. Murphy's speech was fluent, and her rapid alternating finger movements, gait, and tandem gait were normal (Id.). In September 2008, however, Ms. Murphy had right sided hand and foot pains, which caused her to drop things (R. 645). On October 31, 2008, Ms. Murphy reported to Dr. Mayer that her headaches were more frequent, and she was frustrated that the sensation in her right hand was "still quite bad" and she still had "some difficulty with speech" (R. 690). Ms. Murphy also demonstrated "severely diminished proprioception in the right hand" (Id.). Dr. Mayer rated the rest of her examination - speech strength, rapid alternating finger movements, gait and tandem gait - as normal, good or "fairly good, and he doubted that Ms. Murphy's headaches were related to her stroke (Id.). On December 15, 2008, Ms. Murphy had a follow-up MRA of her carotids, which showed approximately 60 percent stenosis of the high cervical left internal carotid artery and recanalization (reopening) of the previous left internal carotid artery dissection (R. 584). The MRA showed no other stenosis (R. 585).

         In the latter half of 2008, Ms. Murphy also complained to her physician about heel pain (R. 294). Imaging from September 2008 showed that she had moderate plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tissue) on her left heel (R. 293). On October 31, 2008, Ms. Murphy visited podiatrist Steven French, DPM, who injected her left heel with a corticosteroid for inflammation and Lidocaine (anesthetic) for the pain (R. 651). Ms. Murphy was also treated with orthotics and a splint (Id.).

         On January 24, 2009, Ms. Murphy went to the hospital with shortness of breath and chest tightness, and she was prescribed aspirin and discharged the next day (R. 672-74). Hospital records noted that Ms. Murphy "has improved significantly" from right hemiplegia (single side arm and hand weakness) and dysphasia (language impairment) resulting from stroke (R. 673-74). On March 3, 2009, Ms. Murphy followed up with a physician's assistant ("PA") at Pronger (R. 733). The PA noted that Ms. Murphy had a normal gait and 5/5 motor strength throughout, and that her status post CVA was "currently stable with no significant change" (Id.).

         On October 14, 2009, Ms. Murphy visited her primary care physician at Pronger complaining of frequent headaches (R. 727). She also stated that she had sharp pains and paresthesias in her right side arms and feet, which had been "ongoing ever since" her stroke (R. 727-28). Nevertheless, she was "still able to do anything with the arm, " and her neurologic exam was essentially normal (R. 728-29). On December 21, 2009, Ms. Murphy returned to Dr. Mayer for the first time since October 2008 (R. 722). She complained of numbness over the right side of her body, headaches, pain along the neck (muscular in nature), and forgetfulness (Id.). Dr. Mayer noted that Ms. Murphy's speech was "quite fluent, " she had good strength in all four extremities, her gait was stable and she showed no loss of balance (R. 722-23). However, rapid alternating finger movements were "slightly slower" and proprioception was "moderately diminished" in the right hand (Id.). Dr. Mayer noted that her last MRA showed Ms. Murphy "overall ... has made a very good recovery" from her stroke, but "she remains very frustrated with her persistent deficits" (R. 723).

         On July 23, 2010, Ms. Murphy and her husband appeared and testified before an ALJ (R. 1094). Ms. Murphy testified that she could only drive and stand for a short while before her foot or leg went numb, though her plantar fasciitis was "getting better" (R. 1101, 1131-33). At the time of the hearing, Ms. Murphy could do things like write and tie her shoes, and the ALJ observed she was "talking very well" that day (R. 1118, 1125). However, she still had occasional sharp pain in her right arm, and she had trouble distinguishing hot from cold (R. 1125-26). Ms. Murphy's husband testified that she still had problems trying to find the right word (R. 1136), and she was very forgetful (R. 1139-40). She also had trouble picking things up because she could not sense how much pressure she was using (R. 1159). Mr. Murphy stated that his wife's arm and leg pain kept her up at night so she had to lay down sometimes during the day (R. 1162).


         As we explained above, the first ALJ who heard the case recommended an unfavorable decision, which the Appeals Council adopted, and a remand by the Seventh Circuit followed. After remand, a new ALJ held a hearing on June 10, 2015. At that hearing, Ms. Murphy testified there that she never "totally" got back to normal after her stroke (R. 784). It took her 12 to 18 months after her stroke to read and drive again (R. 785, 789). The parties stipulated to her husband's testimony from 2010 (R. 791).

         A medical expert ("ME") in neurosurgery, Karl Manders, M.D., then testified by telephone. He opined that Ms. Murphy met Listing 12.02 for neurocognitive disorders, secondary to stroke, pain, right extremity weakness and speech difficulty "for a period of 18 months at least" from the date of her stroke (R. 793-95). Dr. Manders added that Ms. Murphy met Listing 12.02 "in the first year and a half, two years . . ." (R. 795). Dr. Manders also opined that Ms. Murphy met Listing 11.04A and B (for vascular insult to the brain) for "up to two years, " because there was evidence of aphasia, ineffective speech, and persistent disorganization of motor function of her arm and leg (Id.).

         Dr. Manders testified that the records from 2009 and beyond showed Ms. Murphy had "a very good neurological recovery" (R. 794), because she had full motor power, normal gait and essentially normal neurological examination, and her speech difficulty was "minimal" (R. 796). He opined that "by '09 . . . she had made pretty much full recovery except for some subjective complaints, " and Ms. Murphy did not meet a listing "probably after two years" (R. 797). Upon further review of the October 31, 2008 medical report, Dr. Manders stated that Ms. Murphy would not meet a listing as of that date (R. 799-800). While proprioception difficulties would cause trouble with fine manipulation with her right hand, it would not "impact on her ability to function another way, grossly with manipulation, " and Ms. Murphy would have no limits on her speech or her ability to stand, walk or sit (R. 800-04). Dr. Manders also stated that headaches or dizziness would not ...

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