United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
D. Johnston Magistrate Judge.
Mike H., on behalf of his wife and original claimant, Mary
brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking
remand of the decision denying his wife's social security
benefits. For the reasons below, the Plaintiff's motion
for summary judgment is denied, the Commissioner's motion
for summary judgment is granted, and the ALJ's decision
filed for disability benefits on November 5, 2014. She
alleged a February 1, 2006 disability onset date caused by
cervical spondylosis with myelopathy, coronary artery
disease, and hyponatremia. R. 20, 213. She stopped working
because of her impairments on February 15, 2006. R. 213.
Claimant's date last insured is December 31, 2011. R. 22.
On February 10, 2017, Claimant, represented by counsel,
appeared for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). At the hearing, she testified about her
work history and various impairments, including difficulty
raising her right arm; difficulty manipulating three fingers
on her left hand; and lower back and right leg pain. R.
46-57. Mary's husband (and now Plaintiff) Mike H. also
testified regarding the effect of Mary's impairments on
her functioning. R. 61-66.
impartial medical expert (ME), Dr. Ashok Jilhewar, also
testified at the hearing. R. 69. Along with discussing
impairments not relevant to this appeal, the ME discussed the
record evidence regarding the Claimant's left hand. R.
69-82. He testified that after cervical spine surgery in
March 2006 and subsequent physical therapy, Claimant's
left hand was improving. Additionally, by July 2006, her
extensor was working well, and she could fully stretch her
pinky finger on her left hand; therefore, the ME testified
that these and other functional improvements indicated that
Claimant did not have a “claw” left hand
following her March 2006 surgery. R. 71-72, 76.
the hearing, the ALJ followed the five-step evaluation
process set forth by the Social Security Administration 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) and found that the Claimant was
not disabled. R. 20, 33. The ALJ specifically found the
following: (1) at Step One, that Claimant had not engaged in
any substantial gainful activity between her onset date of
February 1, 2006 through December 31, 2011, her date last
insured, R. 22; (2) at Step Two, that Claimant had “the
following severe impairments: moderately severe cervical
facet joint arthritis at multiple levels without central
canal stenosis, cervical radiculitis with some neurologic
deficit, C8-T1 radiculopathy, and status post March 2006
fusion surgery” during the relevant insured period, R.
23; (3) at Step Three, that Claimant did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled
any listed impairment, Id.; (4) Claimant had the
residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined
in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(h) except that she could only
occasionally lift and carry 10 pounds and frequently lift and
carry 5 with the upper-left extremity, could
“frequently stoop, crouch, crawl, kneel, and balance,
” and occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never
climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. R. 24. The ALJ also found
the Claimant was “restricted from working at
unprotected heights, working near heavy equipment, or
operating machinery” but could “frequently reach,
handle, and finger with her bilateral upper extremities,
” id.; and (5) at Step Four, the ALJ found
that Claimant could perform her past relevant work as an
accounting clerk. R. 32.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
reviewing court may enter judgment “affirming,
modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner ,
with or without remanding the cause for rehearing.” 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner's denial of
disability is conclusive when supported by substantial
evidence. Id.; Skinner v. Astrue, 487 F.3d
836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399-400 (1971). The court may not
displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts and
evidence, reweighing evidence, or by making independent
credibility determinations. Overman v. Astrue, 546
F.3d 456, 462 (7th Cir. 2008); Elder v. Astrue, 529
F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Similarly, even if reasonable
minds could differ on whether a claimant is disabled, a
reviewing court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is
adequately supported. Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d
503, 513 (7th Cir. 2009).
review of an ALJ's decision is not a rubber stamp of
approval. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th
Cir. 2002) (“mere scintilla” not substantial
evidence). The court must critically review the ALJ's
decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665
(7th Cir. 2008). The ALJ's conclusion will not be
affirmed where he fails to build a logical bridge between the
evidence and his conclusion, even if evidence exists in the
record to support that conclusion. Berger v. Astrue,
516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008); Steele v.
Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002) (where
opinion is “so poorly articulated as to prevent
meaningful review” the case must be remanded).
Additionally, courts may not build a logical bridge for the
ALJ. Mason v. Colvin, 13 CV 2993, 2014 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 152938, at *19-20 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 29, 2014).
argues that the ALJ ignored evidence that Claimant's left
hand became worse, not better, after surgery, and as a result
erroneously concluded at Step Four that she could perform her
past relevant work. Specifically, Plaintiff points to a
neurosurgery evaluation from 2008 by Dr. Sean A. Salehi, in
which he indicates that Claimant complained of “left
hand weakness and numbness in her fourth and fifth digits in
her left hand” and that her left-hand weakness
“has not responded to therapy.” R. 694. Upon
Claimant's examination, Dr. Salehi indicated normal upper
extremity strength “except in the left hand which is
significantly diminished on wrist extension and finger
abduction” before recommending surgery. R. 696.
Plaintiff argues that based on Dr. Salehi's 2008 report,
and contrary to the ME's opinion that Claimant's left
hand improved after her March 2006 surgery, Claimant's
left hand had gotten worse after surgery and
subsequent physical therapy. Therefore, Plaintiff argues the
ALJ erred by relying on the ME's flawed testimony
regarding improvements to Claimant's left hand when
making his Step Four determination.
also points out that the ALJ relied on the ME's testimony
that the Claimant “had virtually no restrictions on
reaching, handling, and fingering, except she was limited to
constant as opposed to frequent use.” Dkt. 13 at 6. In
formulating his opinion, the ME relied in part on spine
surgeon Dr. J. Scott Smith's post-surgery treatment note
from July 19, 2006, that Claimant's fingers in her left
hand were working well. See R. 26, 70-71. However,
Plaintiff argues that this treatment note “does not
appear in the file, based on a diligent search by
counsel.” Dkt. 13 at 6. Thus, Plaintiff contends the
ALJ failed to account for the 2008 post-surgery report which
rebuts the ME's testimony regarding her left hand, the ME
otherwise relied on a treatment note that doesn't exist
in the record, and use of the left hand directly effects
Claimant's ability to perform her past relevant work;
therefore, the ALJ erred by mischaracterizing and
cherry-picking the administrative record to support his
decision at Step Four. See Punzio v. Astrue, 630
F.3d 710, 711 (7th Cir. 2011); Steele, 290 F.3d at
940-41; Dkt. 13 at 6.
Plaintiff identifies no error warranting remand because these
arguments suffer from the same problem: Plaintiff's
misreading of the record. First, Dr. Salehi's report,
which Plaintiff states was made in 2008, is in fact dated
January 26, 2006. R. 694. Thus, Dr. Salehi's report
identifying Claimant's left-hand issues and recommending
surgery came approximately one month before her
March 2006 surgery and has no bearing on the ME's opinion
that Plaintiff's left-hand condition improved
after her March 2006 surgery. The ALJ did not
address Dr. Salehi's 2008 report as described by
Plaintiff because no such report exists in the record.
Dr. Smith's July 19, 2006 post-surgery treatment note,
which Plaintiff argues “does not appear in the file,
based on a diligent search by counsel, ” can be found
on page 698 of the administrative record. Indeed, the
treatment note indicates that several months after surgery,
Claimant was “doing very well, ” her triceps
strength had almost returned to normal, and despite some
weakness in the third and fourth digits of her left hand, her
“extensor digiti minimi” was “working well
and she [had] made quite a bit of progress.” R. 698.
Thus, contrary to Plaintiff's argument, the treatment
note does ...