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Matheson v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2018

Tim Matheson Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Iain D. Johnston, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This is a Social Security disability appeal. At the administrative level, plaintiff Tim Matheson was partially-one might even say mostly-successful. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) concluded that plaintiff was permanently disabled as of July 6, 2014. Plaintiff is here because he believes the ALJ should have found him disabled starting two and a half years earlier-on January 27, 2012. This appeal is about this discrete period of benefits.

         Plaintiff has numerous medical issues, including heart disease (causing shortness of breath), back problems, arthritis, depression, knee problems, and hand/arm/elbow/shoulder problems. Some of these issues were present, perhaps in less severe form, well before plaintiff's alleged onset date in January 2012. The heart problem, for example, goes back to at least 2004 when plaintiff had the first of many stents placed in his heart.[2] In 2006, he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Id. at 2. In 2007 and 2008, he had surgeries to address back problems.

         Plaintiff's last job was at Keene Technology where he worked for approximately eight months. He stopped working there on January 27, 2012, which coincides with the onset date he chose for his claim. R. 39. According to plaintiff, this job was “very stressful and physically demanding.” R. 353. After quitting, plaintiff sought medical treatment, and pursued a worker's compensation claim. According to plaintiff, the worker's compensation case went to trial and he was awarded some benefits, but the case was being appealed by the insurance company and was still not resolved at the time of the administrative hearing in this case.

         Plaintiff has been seen by numerous doctors and nurses, including Dr. Rabor (cardiology), Dr. Gray (family physician), Nurse Elissa Russell, Dr. Gahl (pain doctor), Dr. Alexander (neurosurgeon), Dr. Hovis (rheumatology), and Dr. Carlson (orthopedist). Plaintiff's opening brief contains a lengthy, bullet-point list of his doctor visits, grouped into the following five topics: (i) coronary artery disease; (ii) right knee; (iii) lumbar spine; (iv) hands/arms; and (v) shoulders.

         For the pending worker's compensation case, two doctors were asked to evaluate plaintiff's condition. Plaintiff's counsel asked Dr. Jeffrey Coe to examine him and prepare a report.[3] His report is a six-page, typed letter that was addressed to plaintiff's counsel. The letter describes plaintiff's medical history and his job duties at Keene Technology, and then offers the following conclusion: “[I]n my opinion, Mr. Matheson is in need of work restriction due to the condition of ill-being of his lower back. Appropriate work restriction would include limitation in the lifting to the ‘light' physical demand level with avoidance of repetitive bending or twisting at the waist.” R. 338. The other opinion was prepared by Dr. Edward Goldberg and sent to a Chicago law firm. Dr. Goldberg also examined plaintiff. His report is four pages, and also summarizes the medical evidence. Dr. Goldberg reached several conclusions, but concluded that he believed that plaintiff could “return to work at a light level.” R. 818.

         On July 7, 2015, a hearing was held before the ALJ. Plaintiff testified about his medical conditions, work history, the pending worker's compensation case, his wife who was on medical leave, his daily activities, and other matters. The ALJ asked plaintiff why he could not work a less demanding job than the one at Keene, such as an usher at a theater. Plaintiff stated that he could not stand or sit for more than 20 minutes and that he took Percocet and Norco every four hours. Set forth below is plaintiff's description of a typical day, which mostly consisted of sitting in a recliner with a pillow under his legs:

Oh, when I wake up in the morning it's usually coffee; sit in the recliner for 10 to 15/20 minutes and go take a shower; eat some breakfast; go back to the recliner. Well, that's usually around 6:30/7:00 a.m. is when I take all my medications, other than the pain medications. The first dose of pain medication is within ten minutes of waking up. All my heart meds and everything else are all taken at the same time. I don't split them up during the day, it's all at once and that's in the morning. Watch TV; read; may be on a Notebook for a little while; usually back in bed between 11:00 and 12:00 noon for anywhere from a half-an-hour to two hours and back up; go through the same thing with the TV or reading in the recliner, pillows underneath my legs. I normally don't eat lunch. I'll have dinner around anywhere from 5:00 to 6:00 and we're usually in bed no later than 8:00 or 8:30 where we'll watch TV there.

R. 51.

         On September 24, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff was disabled as of July 6, 2014. Like most ALJ decisions, this one contains a narrative section that is mostly a chronology of doctor visits, but that also periodically intersperses indirect commentary. Later in the decision, the ALJ provided more formal analysis of four medical opinions: the two worker's compensation opinions (Dr. Coe and Dr. Goldberg) and two opinions from State agency opinions (Dr. Panepinto and Dr. Arjmand). All of these opinions found that plaintiff could do light work, although they differed slightly in certain additional restrictions. The ALJ accepted and relied on these opinions for the most part, except that the ALJ ultimately concluded plaintiff's pain allegations were credible enough that he could only do sedentary, as opposed to light, work up until July 6, 2014, and that he could do no work thereafter. The ALJ found that plaintiff's condition had worsened since the four doctors rendered their opinions.[4]


         Plaintiff raises two arguments for remand. The first argument rests on two statements taken from Dr. Gray's office notes. If the first argument focuses laser-like on a narrow part of the medical record, the second argument diffusely ranges over the entire medical record. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to consider the cumulative effect of his long list of problems. As explained below, both arguments fail because they ultimately require this Court to simply re-weigh the evidence and then reach a conclusion different from the one reached by the ALJ.

         I. Dr. Gray's Opinions.

         The first argument has a very narrow focus. Plaintiff relies on two statements taken from Dr. Gray's treatment notes. The first statement was taken from the notes of plaintiff's January 30, 2012 visit. Plaintiff relies on the following sentence: “I don't think the physical nature of his job is a good fit for his chronic back problems.” R. 354. The second one is from the notes of plaintiff's April 24, 2012 visit. Plaintiff again extracts a single sentence, which is the following: “He is still unable to do any lifting, pulling, pushing, twisting, bending, or prolonged sitting or standing.” R. 360. Plaintiff argues that these two statements-perhaps individually, ...

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