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Kukec v. Berryhill

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

November 9, 2017

AMY KUKEC, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Susan E. Cox, U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Amy Kukec (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her disability insurance benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons discussed more fully below, the Court remands this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order. Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [dkt. 13] is granted as stated herein. The Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment [dkt. 17] is denied.

         I. Background

         a. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits on November 25, 2014. [Administrative Record (“R”) 19.] Plaintiff also filed also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on December 8, 2014. Id. Both applications alleged an alleged onset date of disability as of October 1, 2011. Id. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on May 5, 2015, and again at the reconsideration stage on October 1, 2015. Id. Plaintiff timely requested an administrative hearing, which was held on May 9, 2016 before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Kimberly S. Cromer. [R 19; 37.] Plaintiff was represented by counsel[2], and both a Medical Expert and a Vocational Expert testified during the hearing. [R 37-78.] On May 26, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits. [R 19-29.] On August 19, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's appeal, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [R 1.] Plaintiff filed the instant action on October 18, 2016. [dkt 1.]

         b. Plaintiff's Background

         Plaintiff was born June 18, 1973, and was 38 years old on her alleged disability onset date. [R 28.] Plaintiff suffers from both mental and physical limitations. Plaintiff's medical records reveal diagnoses of major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from at least 2012 through the present. [R 21, 1431, 1667.] Plaintiff's significant mental history includes, inter alia, a suicide attempt at age 16 (approximately 1989) [R 1263]; a physically and mentally abusive relationship with her ex-husband [R 663, 1247, 1261, etc.]; two-plus-day hospitalization for suicidal ideation in 2013 [R 549]; three-week inpatient psychiatric hospitalization for suicidal ideation in 2014 [R 24, 1428]; and hospital presentation in 2016 for self-mutilation [R 1840, 1844]. Plaintiff has seen several mental health treaters. Of note is Dr. Hang Wang's finding that Plaintiff has had four or more repeated episodes of decompensation and Licensed Professional Counselor Theresa Bradley's finding that Plaintiff has had one or two repeated episodes of decompensation [R 1413, 1426].[3] Plaintiff's significant physical history includes chronic pain from a fractured coxxyx caused by a domestic violence incident with her ex-husband [R 813, 777; 958]; osteoarthritis in her knees severe enough for Plaintiff to be scheduled for a total left knee replacement on June 22, 2016, with her right knee to be replaced the following year [R 25]; lumbar strain and sciatica causing chronic back pain [R 573, 603, 959]; and complaints of migraines 4-5x a week, with one ambulance visit to the hospital for the same [R 1826, 1903].

         c. The ALJ's Decision

         On May 26, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff disability benefits. [R 19-29.] At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of October 1, 2011. [R 21.] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of recurrent major depressive disorder without psychotic features; anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder; mild obesity; history of a coccyx fracture; bilateral osteoarthritis of the knees; chronic headaches; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; and sleep apnea. [Id.] The ALJ found Plaintiff's history of excessive, irregular vaginal bleeding to be a nonsevere impairment. [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App'x 1. [R 22-23.] The ALJ made this step three determination after considering the listing requirements for Listing 1.02 for major dysfunction of a joint; Listing 1. 04 for disorders of the spine; Listing 3. 03 for asthma; Listing 3 .10 for sleep related breathing disorders; Listing 11.03 for nonconvulsive epilepsy; and Listing 11.14 for peripheral neuropathy. [Id.] The ALJ also considered the “Paragraph B” and “Paragraph C” criteria in making her step three decision, finding in key part with respect to Plaintiff's mental impairments that the Plaintiff “experienced no episodes of decompensation….” [R 23.]

         Before step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4] to perform light work, with the exceptions that she can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally; lift and carry 10 pounds frequently; stand or walk for 4 hours in an 8 hour workday; and sit for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday. [R 23-24.] As part of her RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was allowed a sit-stand option at will; she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she cannot work at unprotected heights, or with hazardous machinery; she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps and stairs; she should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures and respiratory irritants; she should avoid even moderate ambulation on slippery, obstructive, or uneven terrain; she should avoid all exposure to vibration; she cannot perform commercial driving; she may use a cane; and she can lift and carry with contralateral upper extremity. [R 24.] The ALJ further limited Plaintiff's RFC in that she can perform simple routine work with no routine contact with the general and occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors; and Plaintiff cannot perform paced work, as any job must allow for a variable rate with end of day production goals. [Id.]

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work, which was all sedentary work performed at a sedentary exertional level. [R 28.] Finally, at step five, the ALJ found there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. [R 28-29.] Specifically, the ALJ relied upon testimony from the vocational expert in concluding that Plaintiff could perform “unskilled light work with SVP 2 minus 5% of sedentary jobs”[5] as follows: weight tester; assembly optical; and ampular sealer. [Id.] Because of this determination, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. [R 29.]

         c. Issues Before the Court

         On August 19, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review [R 1-6], making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review, alleging that: 1) the ALJ made two internally inconsistent findings (essentially, that a sit/stand at-will option is inconsistent with a daily sit/stand limitation); 2) the ALJ failed to build a logical bridge with respect to any off-task time Plaintiff might need when switching between sitting and standing; 3) the ALJ failed to resolve a conflict between the sitting requirements of sedentary work and Plaintiff's particular sit/stand limitations; 4) the ALJ failed to properly weigh treating source opinions; 5) the ALJ failed to properly weigh Plaintiff's subjective pain allegations; and 6) the ALJ's RFC assessment failed to properly consider Plaintiff's limits in handling detailed instructions.

         II. Social Security Regulations ...


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