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Kimberly G. v. Saul

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

August 27, 2019

Kimberly G., Plaintiff,
v.
Andrew Marshall Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Lisa A. Jensen United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff is seeking Social Security disability benefits.[1] She filed her application on November 10, 2014, when she was 53 years old. Her medical problems fall into two categories. She has vision limitations caused by treatments for pituitary tumors. The second problem area is numbness and tingling in her hands and arms, which she claims makes it difficult to do some manipulative tasks. These symptoms are caused by several underlying impairments, including carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome in her right elbow, trigger thumb on the right hand, and a partial tear in a tendon and mild degenerative disc disease in her left shoulder.

         Starting in the fall of 2014, which was around the time she filed her application, she underwent several procedures to treat these problems. These were as follows:

• October 2014-right carpal tunnel release
• January 2015-left carpal tunnel release
• April 2015-an injection of her trigger thumb
• July 2015-right elbow nerve decompression

         These procedures were performed by Dr. Brian J. Foster, an orthopedic surgeon. After each procedure, Dr. Foster eventually concluded that plaintiff could return to work. Specifically, on December 30, 2014, two months after the right carpal tunnel surgery, Dr. Foster released plaintiff to work “[f]ull duty, no restrictions.” R. 532. In March 2015, two months after the left carpal tunnel surgery, Dr. Foster again released her to work “[f]ull duty, no restrictions.” R. 712. Finally, in October 2015, several months after the trigger thumb and ulnar procedures, Dr. Foster released plaintiff to work with, again, “[n]o restrictions.”[2] R. 854.

         The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing in August 2016. Dr. Ashok Jilhewar testified as the impartial medical expert. He opined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to do light work subject to certain restrictions, the relevant one for this appeal being that plaintiff could only do frequent handling, fingering, and reaching with her right hand and arm.[3] Dr. Jilhewar imposed no restrictions on the left hand and arm. Dr. Jilhewar relied, in part, on the fact that Dr. Foster did not impose any work restrictions.

         On December 12, 2016, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. The ALJ adopted Dr. Jilhewar's analysis and RFC proposal, with one exception. The ALJ extended the handling limitations to the left arm in addition to the right arm. The ALJ also relied in part on Dr. Foster's statements that plaintiff had no work restrictions, but here again the ALJ did not adopt that opinion in full given the inclusion of the bilateral handling restriction. In short, the ALJ adopted a more restrictive RFC than suggested by either Dr. Jilhewar or Dr. Foster.[4]

         DISCUSSION

         A reviewing court may enter judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive. Id. Substantial evidence exists if there is enough evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to determine that the decision's conclusion is supportable. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399-401 (1971). Accordingly, the reviewing court cannot displace the decision by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008).

         However, the Seventh Circuit has emphasized that review is not merely a rubber stamp. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (a “mere scintilla” is not substantial evidence). A reviewing court must conduct a critical review of the evidence before affirming the Commissioner's decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). Even when adequate record evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision will not be affirmed if the Commissioner does not build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008). Moreover, federal courts cannot build a logical bridge on behalf of the ALJ. See Mason v. Colvin, No. 13 C 2993, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 152938, at *19-20 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 29, 2014).

         Plaintiff raises two main arguments for a remand. The main one is that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff could do frequent handling (i.e. between one-third and two-thirds of the day) whereas plaintiff believes she can only do these activities occasionally (i.e. up to one-third of the day). If the ALJ had made the latter finding, then plaintiff would have been found disabled under the grid ...


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