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Jason H. v. Saul

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

August 16, 2019

Jason H. Plaintiff,
Andrew Marshall Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Lisa A. Jensen United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Jason H. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) challenging the denial of disability benefits. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The Commissioner's decision is reversed, and this case is remanded.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed his application on November 14, 2014, alleging disability beginning July 16, 2014. R. 149. Plaintiff's date last insured is December 31, 2017. R. 58. His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. R. 66, 78. Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on November 17, 2015. R. 91. On February 22, 2017, a hearing was held by Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Lana Johnson. R. 31. Plaintiff, represented by an attorney, appeared and testified via video conference. R. 33. Carolyn Ward-Kniaz, an impartial vocational expert, also appeared and testified. R. 54-56. On May 2, 2017, the ALJ issued her written opinion denying Plaintiff's claims for disability benefits. R. 16-25. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Appeals Council. R. 145-48. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 17, 2017. R. 1-7. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).

         B. Factual Background

         1. Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff has an extensive history of several left knee procedures and surgeries. On February 10, 2014, Dr. Marko Krpan performed an arthroscopy of the left knee with partial medial and lateral meniscectomy, chondroplasty medial formal condyle, and synovectomy. R. 270. On July 17, 2014, Dr. Krpan performed a unicompartmental knee arthroplasty, or partial knee replacement, due to Plaintiff's left knee medial compartment osteoarthritis. R. 276. A femoral nerve block was performed to help relieve the pain. Id. Unfortunately, Plaintiff suffered from significant weakness and decreased sensation in his left quadriceps as a result. R. 343, 345. An electromyography indicated a left femoral neuropathy, or nerve dysfunction, with no evidence of denervation. R. 346. Plaintiff later tore his lateral meniscus and had an arthroscopy and debridement of the lateral meniscus of the left knee on June 5, 2015. R. 39, 408, 409. Plaintiff demonstrated full range of motion in the knee and reported no pain or instability in a follow-up visit with Dr. Krpan on June 18, 2015. R. 409. In another follow-up visit on September 15, 2015, Plaintiff stated that his pain was almost completely resolved following the arthroscopic debridement of the left knee but still experienced buckling due to weakness in the quadriceps. R. 1025. Plaintiff stated that he used a brace when outside the house or walking for long periods, and he occasionally used his cane when not wearing the brace. Id. On February 17, 2016, Plaintiff stated that he was able to tolerate longer periods of activity such as going up and down stairs but still complained of his knee buckling. R. 1088. On February 25, 2016, Dr. Krpan diagnosed a new tear of the anterior horn of the lateral meniscus. R. 1089-90. On March 14, 2016, Dr. Krpan performed a total left knee replacement surgery. R. 1153. On May 5, 2016, Plaintiff reported that his total knee replacement surgery result was outstanding and that he had no instances of falls or buckling of his knees. R. 1081. In the last visit with Dr. Krpan on August 17, 2016, Dr. Krpan stated that Plaintiff had full knee motion and that the knee was stable, which X-rays confirmed. R. 1092.

         2. Hearing Testimony

         At the hearing before the ALJ on February 22, 2017, Plaintiff testified that he worked as a tile setter, standing and kneeling for most of the day. R. 37. The ALJ asked Plaintiff why he felt he was disabled and unable to work, and Plaintiff responded that the femoral nerve block performed in July 2014 paralyzed his quadriceps muscle. R. 38. He did not have stability to control his knee and so he wore a custom leg brace. Id. When asked if the nerve block affected the strength in his knee, Plaintiff answered, “Yes . . . that's why I am limited to what I can lift because of the nerve block.” R. 48. Plaintiff further explained that because his quadriceps were not working, he experienced a lot of pain and the other muscles were working harder to stabilize his leg. Id. That was why standing and walking any distance became so painful to him. Id.

         Plaintiff discussed his regular activities. Plaintiff testified that he does household chores like cleaning the dishes, vacuuming, doing laundry, and cooking. R. 41. He needs to sit down and rest his leg occasionally when he does the dishes. Id. Plaintiff goes grocery shopping but needs to stop a few times to rest his leg. R. 42. Plaintiff goes to the YMCA a couple days per week to ride a bicycle for twenty to thirty minutes and lift weights while sitting. R. 41, 50. Plaintiff stated that lifting weights would be a problem if he was standing. R. 50. Plaintiff testified that he liked to hunt and fish. R. 42. The last time he went fishing was six months prior to the February 22, 2017 hearing. Id. The last time he went hunting was in the middle of December 2016. R. 43. In both instances, Plaintiff's knee started hurting so he had to stop. Id.

         The vocational expert also testified at the hearing. The ALJ asked the vocational expert to imagine a hypothetical individual, with Plaintiff's age, education, and with a past job as a tile setter, who is able to perform sedentary work except he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and can never be around unprotected heights. R. 54. The vocational expert testified that such an individual cannot do the past job of tile setter. Id. Instead, such an individual can perform other jobs such as sorter, inspector, or assembler, which all exist in substantial numbers in the national economy. R. 55. The vocational expert was also asked, “if an individual needs to elevate one of their lower extremities above waist level for a portion for the eight hour work day, I would assume that would preclude sedentary work; is that accurate?” R. 56. The vocational expert answered, “Yes.” Id.

         3. The ALJ's Decision

         In her written decision denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits, the ALJ went through the five-step analysis for determining whether a person is disabled under the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. R. 18. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left knee degenerative joint disease and meniscus tear and left quadriceps dysfunction. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no impairment ...

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