United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
DELLA M. COOLEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER 
I. Schenkier, Magistrate Judge
Delia M. Cooley ("Ms. Cooley" or "Plaintiff)
seeks reversal or remand of the final decision of the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissoner")
denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (doc. #
12: Pl.'s Mem. in Support of Summ. J.). The Commissioner
has filed a motion seeking affirmance of the decision denying
benefits (doc. # 19; Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.). For the
following reasons, we grant the Commissioner's motion and
affirm the Commissioner's decision.
Cooley applied for benefits on February 4, 2011, alleging she
became disabled on October 10, 2005 (R. 286), due to high
blood pressure, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, and carpal tunnel
syndrome ("CTS") (R. 127). She later amended her
alleged onset date to October 1, 2008 (R. 306). Her date last
insured ("DLI") was June 30, 2012, approximately
four months before she turned 50 years old (R. 20). Ms.
Cooley's claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration, and after a hearing on July 24, 2012, the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion
on October 22, 2012, denying Ms. Cooley's request for
benefits. On November 29, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated
the ALJ's decision and remanded Ms. Cooley's claim to
the ALJ. Ms. Cooley appeared for a second hearing before the
same ALJ on May 30, 2014. On July 24, 2014, the ALJ issued
another written decision finding Ms. Cooley was not disabled
from October 1, 2008 through the DLI (R. 15-35). The Appeals
Council denied Ms. Cooley's request for review of the
decision (R. 1-6), making the ALJ's July 2014 ruling the
final decision of the Commissioner. See Loveless v.
Colvin, 810 F.3d 502, 506 (7th Cir. 2016).
testified that she worked for years in customer service at
Nicor Gas before being terminated in 2007 after having
trouble working due to pain in her arm, back and neck (R.
112-13). The record shows that Ms. Cooley visited her primary
care doctor, Sanjay Pethkar, M.D., at Suburban Healthcare
Associates from January 2006 through November 2008, and then
again from May 2011 through 2014. During the earlier visits,
Ms. Cooley intermittently complained of neck and arm pain,
high blood pressure (hypertension), headaches, tingling and
numbness in her hands or arms due to CTS and fatigue from
sleep apnea (despite her use of a CPAP machine) (R. 417-84).
At the appointments during which Ms. Cooley complained of
neck pain, Dr. Pethkar at times recorded that she had muscle
spasms, tenderness and decreased motion in her cervical spine
(neck) (Id.). Dr. Pethkar consistently diagnosed Ms.
Cooley with hypertension and CTS, and occasionally diagnosed
her with fibromyalgia or radiculopathy (nerve pain) of the
upper extremity when she complained of neck pain
Cooley also complained of cramping, tingling and numbness in
her legs in October 2008, and examination that day showed
muscle spasm and tenderness in her lower (lumbosacral) spine
(R. 441). Dr. Pethkar treated Ms. Cooley with medication for
high blood pressure and occasionally medication for nerve
pain (Effexor) (Id.). At Ms. Cooley's November
2008 visit, Dr. Pethkar noted that she could not work due to
multiple medical problems (R. 440).
March 6, 2009, Meda Raghavendra, M.D., examined Ms. Cooley
for an initial consultation at a pain management clinic (R.
537-40). Dr. Raghavendra recorded that she had normal
strength and ambulation, but was positive at fibromyalgia
tender points throughout her body (R. 539-40). Ms. Cooley did
not have a follow-up appointment with him (Id.).
Middleton, M.D., performed a consultative examination of Ms.
Cooley on March 25, 2011. Dr. Middleton reported that Ms.
Cooley's strength, movements, gait and balance were
normal, but she had "mild tenderness" at
fibromyalgia trigger points in the low bilateral cervical
region, occiput (back of the head), trapezius, bilateral
gluteal region, bilateral greater trochanter, and bilateral
knees (R. 499). She concluded that Ms. Cooley had
fibromyalgia, CTS and sleep apnea, although Ms. Cooley did
not appear to be easily fatigued that day (R. 500). Dr.
Middleton opined Ms. Cooley could perform sedentary to medium
work, but with limits on lifting, pulling, pushing and
operating heavy or vibratory machinery (Id.).
Cooley returned to Dr. Pethkar on March 29, 2011, complaining
of pain in her neck and both arms as well as daytime
drowsiness from sleep apnea (R. 506). Ms. Cooley's
examination was normal, but Dr. Pethkar wrote that she
"cannot work due to multiple medical problems" (R.
507). On that same visit, Dr. Pethkar and Ms. Cooley
completed a disability status update relating to Ms.
Cooley's long term disability claim with Unum Life
Insurance Company (R. 524-32). Dr. Pethkar stated that Ms.
Cooley's diagnoses were CTS, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea,
and radiculopathy, and that she could not drive due to sleep
apnea and CTS (Id.). Dr. Pethkar checked boxes
indicating that Ms. Cooley could occasionally (up to
one-third of the day): sit, stand, walk, lift/carry up to 20
pounds, push/pull, perform fine finger movements, climb,
twist/bend/stoop and reach above shoulder level (R. 527). On
the same form, Ms. Cooley reported that muscle pain and
stiffness made it difficult to complete household chores and
that she experienced daytime sleepiness, among other symptoms
(R. 528). However, she did not need assistance caring for
herself or performing daily activities; she just performed
them slowly (Id.).
April 11, 2011, state agency medical consultant, Richard
Bilinsky, M.D., assessed Ms. Cooley's residual functional
capacity ("RFC") (R. 127-34). He found that her
statements were "somewhat excessive when compared to the
objective medical evidence, " and opined that Ms. Cooley
could perform light work and stand, walk or sit for a total
of about six hours in an eight-hour workday with unlimited
ability to push and/or pull (R. 131). This opinion was
affirmed on reconsideration by Francis Vincent, M.D. (R.
2011, Dr. Pethkar assessed Ms. Cooley with chronic fatigue
syndrome, possible fibromyalgia, and chronic pain syndrome,
and he prescribed Cymbalta (for nerve and muscle pain) and
Tramadol (a narcotic) (R. 505). He also noted that Ms. Cooley
took Oxycontin for pain (R. 504). In February 2012, Ms.
Cooley also complained of low back pain and leg tingling; Dr.
Pethkar prescribed Lyrica (for nerve and muscle pain) (R.
10, 2011, Jeff Floyd, a physician's assistant at Suburban
Healthcare, completed chronic pain and sleep disorder RFC
questionnaires on Ms. Cooley's behalf (R. 514-20). He
wrote that Ms. Cooley's fibromyalgia, CTS, hypertension,
and sleep apnea caused intermittent flare-ups of chronic pain
and fatigue, which would frequently interfere with the
attention and concentration needed to perform even simple
work tasks (R. 514). Mr. Floyd wrote that Ms. Cooley could
sit for 15 to 20 minutes and stand for 10 to 15 minutes
before needing to change positions, and sit, stand or walk no
more than two hours total in an eight-hour work day (R. 515).
She would also need intermittent periods of walking around
for 5 to 10 minutes at a time (Id.). Mr. Floyd also
indicated that Ms. Cooley could only rarely lift and carry 10
pounds and had significant limitations doing repetitive
reaching, handling or fingering (R. 516).
Cooley appeared at her first hearing before the ALJ on July
24, 2012. She testified that she tried working at Comcast in
July 2010, but stopped after about six weeks because she had
difficulty concentrating during training, felt pain in her
back and neck after sitting for hours, her hands and wrists
would "swell up" due to her CTS, and her blood
pressure went up, making her lightheaded and dizzy (R.
104-06). Ms. Cooley testified that she saw her doctor every
three to four months for management of her medication for
blood pressure and fibromyalgia. Her fibromyalgia medication
varied because she did not have insurance and could not
always afford it; at times she could only afford Aleve or
extra strength Tylenol (R. 106-09). Every two weeks, her pain
was so bad that she could barely move around (R. 115). Ms.
Cooley testified that she still felt fatigued despite using a
CPAP machine at night, and CTS still caused her arm pain (R.
110-12). Nevertheless, Ms. Cooley tried to keep up her
stretching exercises and daily activities, like cleaning the
house, doing dishes, grocery shopping and cooking, though she
could not stand or sit for more than 30 to 40 minutes due to
pain (R. 115-16). She also visited her grandchildren about
once per week and drove short distances (R. 117-19).
October 22, 2012, the ALJ issued an opinion finding Ms.
Cooley not disabled, but the Appeals Council remanded this
opinion on November 29, 2013. On remand, the Appeals Council
ordered the ALJ: to evaluate fibromyalgia at Step 2 of the
evaluation process and under Social Security Ruling 12-2p; to
consider more recent clinical records from Dr. Pethkar; to
account for Ms. Cooley's increase in age - to 50 -- in
Step 5; to further evaluate Ms. Cooley's subjective
complaints; to ...