Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Karen J. v. Saul

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

October 16, 2019

Karen J., Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Iain D. Johnston Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, who is 61 years old, is seeking Social Security disability benefits based on a long-standing back problem that has required three lumbar fusion surgeries. In 2004, plaintiff had her first fusion surgery. At that time she was working as a shipping clerk, a job she held since 1990. R. 203. After the surgery, plaintiff did not work for a year or two. In 2006, she began working as a nail technician in a beauty spa. But her back problems eventually worsened, leading to a second fusion surgery in 2011. After this surgery, plaintiff started in a new job as an assembler in an automotive plant. She worked several more years until the back problem again re-emerged. In the fall of 2014, she had a third lumbar fusion surgery. Plaintiff then stopped working and applied for benefits.

         The doctor who treated plaintiff's back problem throughout this time was Dr. Michael S. Roh, an orthopedist at the Rockford Spine Center. He performed all three surgeries and treated plaintiff for over a decade. After the third fusion surgery, Dr. Roh made two short statements in 2015 about whether plaintiff was able to work. These two statements are central to this appeal.[2]

         As a preliminary observation, it is fair to say that both statements, however they might be interpreted, are conclusory with no accompanying analysis. The first statement was handwritten on a prescription note pad, and was dated January 21, 2015. Here is a screenshot:

         (Image Omitted)

         R. 523. The handwriting is a little difficult to read, but the main assertion is that plaintiff could return to "light duty for 2 weeks" and then afterwards could work "full duty - no restrictions." In other words, this was essentially a clean bill of health.

         The second statement was made approximately eight months later. It was not on a prescription note pad like the first opinion but was instead a sentence taken from Dr. Roh's treatment notes for plaintiffs visit on September 10, 2015. Dr. Roh wrote that plaintiff reported that she was having “a difficult time bouncing back from her past surgery” and was “experiencing a great deal of persistent lower lumbar back pain and stiffness as well as bilateral hip and buttocks pain and tightness” and that this pain had “progressively gotten worse over the last year.” R. 426. At the end of these notes, Dr. Roh wrote the following, the first sentence being the key one:

The patient also has obtained an attorney and is applying for long term disability and I do think she would be a good candidate for this
We discussed the possibility of becoming established with Dr. Dahlberg for more chronic pain management and the patient stated that she would consider this as well.
I told her to contact us if she has any problems, questions or concerns or if there is any way we can help her out, but again I do not think her current symptoms would warrant any type of surgery and the patient stated herself that she was not looking for anymore surgery.

R. 427.

         To summarize, the first statement was that plaintiff could work with no restrictions, and the second, given eight months later, was that she would be a “good candidate” for long-term disability. At issue is how to reconcile these seemingly contrary conclusions. Plaintiffs theory is that her condition materially changed from January to September 2015 and that Dr. Roh changed his opinion to reflect this fact. The ALJ's theory, discussed further below, is more complicated. Regardless of their theories, both sides admit, either explicitly or implicitly, that some doubt or ambiguity exists about exactly what Dr. Roh believed.

         The Court will pause the discussion here to make a painfully obvious observation. In reading the initial round of briefs, the Court found itself repeatedly asking the following question: why didn't someone-either the ALJ or plaintiff and her counsel-contact Dr. Roh to get a clarification or updated opinion? If such an attempt had been made, then we might have avoided the need to wrestle with the type of arguments now being raised. A lot of energy has gone into speculating what Dr. Roh thought based on a few vague snippets of text. It would have been much easier to hear from him directly. In their initial briefs, the parties did not squarely confront this question. Therefore, after the Court was well into the drafting process, it decided to order supplemental briefing. At the end of this opinion, the Court will discuss these briefs. However, to preview that discussion, the Court did not find that either side presented any new arguments that would change the Court's analysis based on the initial round of briefs.

         On May 31, 2017, the ALJ found that plaintiff was capable of doing sedentary work and could return to her past job as a nail technician, a job plaintiff did from 2006 to 2011. However, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not capable of returning to her most recent job as an automotive assembler given-in the ALJ's words-“her extensive lumbar surgical history with coexisting cervical pathology.” R. 28. The ALJ discussed Dr. Roh's two opinions in separate ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.