United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
R. HARJANI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Lauren J. seeks judicial review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her
application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Specifically,
Lauren seeks an award of benefits, or in the alternative, a
remand to the Commissioner for further proceedings. The
Commissioner filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the
Court to affirm the ALJ's denial of benefits. For the
reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is reversed
and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent
with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.
September 30, 2011, Lauren was performing as a dancer for
Disneyland Resort in California when she felt a snap in her
mid-back. (R. 456). Days later, she was presented to a
Disneyland doctor, who was the first of many doctors to
examine Lauren's spine. Id. at 457. Dr. William
Shapiro diagnosed Lauren with an acute thoracic spine sprain
and prescribed her anti- inflammatory medication and physical
therapy. Id. Lauren was sent back to work but
restricted to modified work with no dancing or lifting
greater than 10 pounds. Id.
the pain in her back and neck worsened and Lauren began
feeling numbness and tingling in her fingers, (see,
e.g., R. 525, 534, 539), she pursued medical help in
connection with a workers' compensation claim. In the two
years following her injury, Lauren received treatment from at
least eight doctors in California, including specialists in
orthopedic surgery and occupational medicine. Id. at
312-21, 576-83. Lauren likewise received several MRI scans,
which showed varying levels of cervical and thoracic spinal
injury. For example, an MRI scan from May 2012 indicated that
Lauren had “a C6-7 disc herniation in the cervical and
[ ] a disc herniation at T7-8 and T9-10 with a sequestered
fragment at that point and also degeneration at T8-9 left
side.” Id. at 489. Whereas an earlier scan
from November 2011 indicated a “moderate right
paracentral disc protrusion at C6-C7 . . . a minimal disc
bulge . . . at C5-C6 without significant central or foraminal
stenosis” and a “possible disc extrusion
posterior to the T9 vertebral body . . . .”
Id. at 533. Lauren was prescribed various medicines
for her pain, such as Medrol Doesepak, Tramadol, Norco,
Vicodin, and Lidoderm patches. Id. at 221, 313-14.
In addition, Lauren received epidural injections to her
cervical spine and thoracic spine. Id. at 410, 440.
After exhausting Lauren's non-surgical treatment options,
it was recommended that she have spinal surgery. Id.
July 2013, after being out of work for nearly 2 years, Lauren
moved back to Chicago to live with her mother and
step-father. (R. 569, 573, 583, 682). She continued to seek
medical treatment for her symptoms, which by that time
included: neck pain, upper back pain, numbness and tingling
in her fingers, and muscle spasms throughout her right
cervical musculature and arms. Id. at 410, 434.
According to Lauren, standing, walking, and sitting
exacerbated her symptoms. Id. at 410. While in
Chicago, Lauren was evaluated by a psychologist and received
treatment from a pain specialist and a neurosurgeon.
Id. at 611-16, 672-79, 681-88. As part of
Lauren's workers' compensation claim, she was also
evaluated by California orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Steven
Silbart, in February 2016. By that time, Lauren reported
constant numbness in some of her fingers, as well as burning
and tingling. Id. at 656. She also stated that she
had neck and back pain, which were made worse by: looking up
and down, bending, stooping, sitting more than 15-20 minutes,
standing for more than a few minutes, and walking more than a
block. Id. at 655-57. Lauren additionally informed
Dr. Silbart that she was beginning to feel some numbness and
tingling in her feet, and that she had an episode of bowel
control loss. Id. at 657.
filed applications for disability benefits in January 2014,
alleging disability beginning October 15, 2011. (R. 23).
Lauren's claims were initially denied on May 8, 2014, and
upon reconsideration on November 25, 2014. Id. Upon
Lauren's written request for a hearing, she appeared and
testified at a hearing held on July 12, 2016 before ALJ Joel
G. Fina. Id. at 34. The ALJ also heard testimony
from a medical expert, Dr. Ashok G. Jilhewar, and a
vocational expert, Glee Ann L. Kehr. Id. at 23.
August 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying
Lauren's applications for disability benefits. (R. 34).
The opinion followed the required five-step evaluation
process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ
found that Lauren had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since October 15, 2011, the alleged onset date.
Id. at 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Lauren
had the severe impairments of chronic pain syndrome secondary
to degenerative disc disease of the cervical and thoracic
spine with cervical radiculopathy. Id. At step
three, the ALJ determined that Lauren did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).
Id. at 27.
then concluded that Lauren retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that she:
can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds but can
occasionally climb ramps or stairs. The claimant can
occasionally balance, stoop or crouch but can never kneel or
crawl. She can perform frequent reaching bilaterally except
that she can only occasionally reach overhead bilaterally.
She can engage in frequent handling of objects defined as
gross manipulation and frequent fingering, defined as fine
manipulation. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure
to dangerous moving machinery and must avoid all exposure to
(R. 28). Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four
that Lauren could not perform her past relevant work as a
dancer, waitress, or bartender. Id. at 32. At step
five, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy that Lauren could
perform. Id. at 33-34. Specifically, the ALJ found
Lauren could work as a telephone clerk, an order clerk, or an
account clerk. Id. at 33. Because of this
determination, the ALJ found that Lauren was not disabled.
Id. at 34. The Appeals Council denied Lauren's
request for review on September 12, 2017, leaving the
ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Id. at 1; McHenry v. Berryhill, 911 F.3d
866, 871 (7th Cir. 2018).
the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled,
the ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry: (1) whether the
claimant is currently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant
has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's
impairment meets or equals any of the listings found in the
regulations, see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P,
App. 1 (2004); (4) whether the claimant is unable to perform
her former occupation; and (5) whether the claimant is unable
to perform any other available work in light of her age,
education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4); Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868
(7th Cir. 2000). These steps are to be performed
sequentially. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). “An
affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on
Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A
negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the
inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not
disabled.” Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868 (quoting
Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir.
review of the ALJ's decision is limited to determining
whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial
evidence or based upon a legal error. Steele v.
Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). 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, 401 (1971).
“Although this standard is generous, it is not entirely
uncritical.” Steele, 290 F.3d at 940. Where
the Commissioner's decision “lacks evidentiary
support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful
review, the case must be remanded.” Id.
found Lauren not disabled at step five of the sequential
analysis because she retains the RFC to perform other work
that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.
Lauren asserts that the ALJ committed several reversible
errors. First, Lauren argues that the ALJ erred in finding
that her impairments did not meet Listed Impairments 1.04,
12.04, and 12.15. Second, Lauren asserts that the ALJ erred
in failing to give controlling weight to treating physician
Dr. Timothy Lubenow. Third, Lauren contends that the ALJ
erred because the vocational expert's testimony was
inconsistent with her RFC. Fourth, Lauren states that the ALJ
relied upon multiple erroneous facts to support his denial of
Court finds that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion
of treating physician Lubenow. Accordingly, for the reasons