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Shank-Haggert v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

July 26, 2017




         Now before the Court are the Plaintiff, Joyce A. Shank-Haggert's, Motion for Summary Judgment (D. 17)[1] and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance (D. 20). The parties provided supporting Memoranda thereto. (D. 17-1; 21). For the reasons set forth, infra, this Court REVERSES the Commissioner's Decision, GRANTS the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (D. 17), DENIES the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance (D. 20), and REMANDS for further proceedings consistent with this Order and Opinion.[2]


         In January 2010, the Plaintiff filed her initial application for benefits. Her husband died in January 2011. Ultimately, she applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI), and Widow's Insurance Benefits (WIB), alleging disability beginning on September 7, 2009. Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. The Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and appeared before ALJ Timothy Snelling. ALJ Snelling issued an unfavorable decision. Pursuant to a request for review, the Appeals Council remanded the Plaintiff's case.

         At a second hearing via video in February 2014 before ALJ Shreese Wilson, the Plaintiff appeared with counsel. Later that month, ALJ Wilson issued a decision concluding that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (D. 10 at pp. 167-178). The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, making ALJ Wilson's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. The Plaintiff filed the instant civil action, seeking review of ALJ Wilson's Decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in September 2015. (D. 1).


         At the time the Plaintiff applied for benefits, she was 55 years old. She was living in a home in Empire, California, but now lives in Rock Island, Illinois. The Plaintiff is a high school graduate. She has not worked fulltime since 2008. On the various SSA forms she submitted, the Plaintiff indicated that she has disabling osteoarthrosis with allied disorders and fibromyalgia.

         At the most recent hearing before ALJ Wilson, the Plaintiff testified that while she was initially overweight when she filed her applications, she had since lost approximately 40 pounds by eating healthy and trying to walk 30 minutes per day. The Plaintiff also said she can drive for approximately one hour before pain in her knee starts bothering her.

         At the hearing, the Plaintiff said she has not worked since December 17th, 2013. In the last 15 years, she has worked fulltime as a manicurist and sales associate in a salon, an assistant activities director, and as a teacher's aide in preschools. While working in the salon, the heaviest thing the Plaintiff had to lift were her clients' feet. She said she quit that job due to tendinitis.

         The first position the Plaintiff held as a teacher's aide was temporary, but she also said she was physically unable to work in that position fulltime. She quit the second teaching position she had because she was physically incapable of doing the work any longer. The Plaintiff then became an assistant activities director at an assisted living facility. While working in this position she suffered a soft tissue injury in an accident where she fell. After that, she says her doctor prohibited her from lifting anything over 25 pounds but neglected to document the restriction. As a result, she continued lifting things at work over 25 pounds and her physical condition deteriorated. She testified that her lifting duties consisted of pushing the residents in their wheelchairs. The Plaintiff quit that job shortly after a new management team took over at the facility.

         Since September 2009, the date of her alleged onset of disability, the Plaintiff has also worked a few different temporary part time jobs. First she worked as a substitute preschool teacher's aide for three to four months, at times for 40 hours a week. She did not need to lift any weight as part of her duties, but she did spend a substantial amount of time on her feet. Her employment ended there because they did not need her services any longer. The Plaintiff has also worked as a preschool teacher's aide for the YWCA from 2012 to 2013 on an as needed basis, averaging around three days per week, sometimes more. Her shifts were as long as eight hours a day. She had an assistant with her in the room and did not need to do any heavy lifting.

         The Plaintiff is still on a list to be called if the YWCA needs her help in that position. She claims that she cannot work a fulltime job any longer because she is physically, mentally, and emotionally incapable. After a few hours of work she is prone to dropping things, her knees and back give out on her, and she starts to forget important things.

         The Plaintiff lives alone in an efficiency apartment. She is able to do all of her own cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping. When grocery shopping, she typically utilizes a motorized scooter. She reads regularly and has even volunteered to help with a Christmas pageant in a retirement home across the street from her house.

         The Plaintiff sees her treating physician continually to address her fibromyalgia and arthritis. These conditions cause her pain. The Plaintiff also said she has sleep apnea. She normally treats the condition with a CPAP machine, but that was broken at the time of the hearing. She takes Cymbalta to treat her pain, alleviate her depression, and help her sleep.

         Vocational Expert, Dennis Brian Paprocki, also testified at the Plaintiff's hearing. Upon questioning from the ALJ, Paprocki confirmed that someone in the Plaintiff's position could engage in the Plaintiff's past work as a preschool teacher's aide and an assistant activities director, even if they were confined to the following limitations: lifting no more than 40 pounds occasionally and up to 25 pounds frequently; sitting, standing, or walking up to six hours in an eight hour work day; only occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no more than frequently climbing ramps or stairs, stooping, kneeling, or reaching overhead bilaterally; having moderate limitations with concentration, persistence, and pace when attempting to complete tasks; no jobs that require complex job processes; and no more than frequent interaction with the general public. He said that the Plaintiff would not be able to perform her past work in the salon within these restrictions.

         Paprocki based his assessment on how the Plaintiff actually performed her past jobs, not necessarily how they are typically performed in the national economy. He claimed she could perform the first job she had as a preschool teacher as it is typically done in the national economy since it is light work and the limitations noted above by the ALJ constitute almost the full range of medium work. Paprocki also said that the Plaintiff's position as an assistant activities director could be performed either as she had done so or as it is done in the national economy. He considered the job, as she performed it, to be lighter than it was performed nationally.

         As the ALJ refined his hypothetical questioning, limiting someone in the same position as the Plaintiff with the limitations noted above and incorporating an additional requirement to entirely avoid temperatures lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit, Popracki said the subject could not perform any of the Plaintiff's past work. This was primarily due to her location in Illinois, where it is simply unfeasible to avoid such temperatures.

         Popracki also testified that someone with the Plaintiff's past work experience would not have any skills that would transfer to other light or sedentary jobs within the original limitations proposed. When the ALJ amended the original scenario and limited the worker to no more than two hours of standing and walking within an eight hour day, Popracki said someone of the Plaintiff's stature would not be able to perform her past relevant work. Popracki affirmed that his testimony was consistent with the information found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). In closing, Plaintiff's counsel requested that the ALJ take special note of the weight restrictions imposed on the Plaintiff at three specific consultative exams found in specific exhibits.


         In her Decision, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff had the severe impairments of osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, obesity, adjustment disorder, anxiety, hypertension, sleep apnea, and headaches. (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). (D. 10 at pg. 170). She further determined, however, that the Plaintiff did “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, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” Id.

         The ALJ analyzed the Plaintiff's medical records, including her visits to mental health professionals. Id. at pp. 170-74. Regarding the latter, she found that while the Plaintiff did suffer from some mental impairments, when “considered singly and in combination, ” they did not ...

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