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Angeles v. Astrue

September 25, 2009

LINDA ANGELES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles H. Evans United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION

CHARLES H. EVANS, U.S. Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Linda Angeles appeals from a final decision of the Social Security Administration (SSA) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) under Chapters II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423, and 1381a. Angeles brings this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to a determination of this case by the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. Order (d/e 13) dated Feb. 24, 2009. Angeles has filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant Local Rule 8.1(D), and the Commissioner has responded. Motion for Summary Reversal (d/e 14); Response to Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 17).) For the reasons set forth below, the Court determines that the SSA's decision is supported by the law and the evidence. The Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Reversal (Motion) is DENIED, and the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

FACTS

Plaintiff Linda Angeles applied for DIB and SSI on January 25, 2005. (Social Security Tr. (d/e 11) at 112, 382.) At that time, she was fifty-four years old. Angeles alleged that, as of April 15, 2004, severe panic attacks, bronchial spasms, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) had rendered her unable to work. (Tr. at 69.) The SSA denied her claims initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. at 73, 66.) Angeles requested a hearing, which was held January 24, 2008. (Tr. at 60, 387.) On February 21, 2008, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Angeles was not disabled for purposes of SSI and DIB. (Tr. at 52.) The Appeals Council denied Angeles's request for review (Tr. at 4), and Angeles now seeks judicial review.

I. MEDICAL HISTORY

Angeles alleges that her mental health difficulties began in 1980.*fn1 (Tr. at 150.) She began mental health treatment at the Springfield Mental Health Center at some point prior to October 22, 2003. (Tr. at 13.) On that date, Angeles went to the Springfield Mental Health Center to consult with Advanced Nurse Practitioner Mary Conklen (Conklen) about treatment for depression. (Id.) At the appointment Angeles reported that, while she felt like things were going well for her, she was having difficulties with panic attacks and mood swings. (Id.) Conklen gave Angeles a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of 60 and prescribed Lexapro for her. (Tr. at 14.) Conklen also continued Angeles on Xanax. (Id.)

Angeles went back to see Conklen on January 13, 2004. (Tr. at 260.) At the appointment, Angeles reported that her job was making her anxious and that she was looking for new work. (Id.) She had stopped taking the Lexapro because of how it made her feel, and stated that she didn't feel like she needed to continue taking an antidepressant medication. (Id.) Angeles told Conklen that she was sleeping well and had no major concerns. (Tr. at 260.) Conklen chose to discontinue the Lexapro and to continue the Xanax, and assigned Angeles a GAF score of 60. (Id.)

On April 6, Angeles returned to see Conklen, and reported that she was still working at the same job, was doing well, and was not experiencing any depressive symptoms. (Tr. at 258.) Although she was worried about her husband's heart problems, Angeles said that she was eating and sleeping well. (Id.) Conklen gave Angeles a GAF score of 65 and chose to continue her on the Xanax. (Tr. at 258, 259.)

Angeles's next visit to Conklen was on June 29. (Tr. at 256.) Angeles reported that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. (Id.) Angeles had quit her job in order to be her mother's primary care provider while she underwent chemotherapy. (Id.) Angeles described significant trouble sleeping, noting that she was only able to sleep for two hours at a time and that, on some nights, she was only able to get a total of two hours of sleep. (Id.) Aside from her sleep problems, Angeles felt that she was handling her difficult situation well. (Id.) Conklen gave her a GAF score of 65 and chose to continue her on the Xanax. (Tr. at 256, 257.) Conklen also started Angeles on Trazodone for her insomnia. (Tr. at 257.)

Angeles returned to Conklen on September 14 of 2004. (Tr. at 15.)

Angeles stated that she was both caring for her husband and taking her mother to her chemotherapy appointments. (Tr. at 15.) She said that she was still having trouble sleeping, getting about four hours of sleep a night, and was suffering from a lack of energy. (Id.) Angeles also indicated that she felt like she could not hold a job down for very long because she eventually reached the point where she could not stand being around other people. (Id.) Conklen recommended that Angeles try antidepressant treatment but Angeles refused. Conklen gave Angeles a GAF score of 65 and continued her on the Xanax. (Tr. 15, 16.)

Angeles's next visit to Conklen was on December 7, 2004. (Tr. at 17.) Angeles reported that she was very busy caring for her mother and for her husband, who had suffered two myocardial infarctions. (Id.) She still was having sleep problems and suffered from low energy and irritability. (Id.) She was using Tylenol PM to help her sleep. (Id.) Conklen again recommended antidepressant medication to Angeles, but Angeles again refused. (Tr. at 18.) Conklen gave Angeles a GAF score of 60. (Tr. at 17.)

On January 25, 2005, Angeles applied to the SSA for DIB and SSI. (Tr. at 112, 382.) Angeles had previously filed a claim for DIB on April 15, 2000. (Tr. at 117.)

On February 20, 2005, Angeles's mother, Betty Prior (Prior), completed a "Function Report" about Angeles for the SSA. (Tr. at 178.) In this report, Prior described Angeles's regular activities and abilities. (Id.)

Prior stated that Angeles's illnesses caused her to experience trouble with sleeping, working, and being around other people. (Tr. at 179.) Prior also stated that, at that time, Angeles was not taking care of any other people or pets. (Id.) Prior stated that Angeles normally prepared her own meals and that she was able to do some housework, such as light cleaning, dusting, and laundry, once a week. (Tr. at 180.) Prior reported that Angeles was able to leave the house by herself and to drive a car, but that she was unable to do these things when her anxiety was bad. (Id.) Prior noted that Angeles was able to do her own grocery shopping, and that the two occasionally went to church together. (Tr. at 181.) According to Prior, Angeles's main interests were reading and watching television. (Id.)

The next day, February 21, Angeles completed an "Activities of Daily Living" Questionnaire for the SSA. (Tr. at 174, 170.) Angeles reported that she cooked her own meals and that she was able to do light cleaning, dusting, and laundry once a week. (Tr. at 170.) She stated that she did not go shopping, and that she only left home when she had to because, although she could drive a car, her anxiety often made this difficult for her. (Tr. at 172.) She also described feeling anxious when she was around other people. (Id.) Angeles reported that she often read and went to church, and that she sometimes watched television and went out to eat. (Tr. at 173.)

When Angeles returned to Conklen on March 1, 2005, she reported that her condition was roughly the same as before. (Tr. at 19.) She said that she was still having sleep problems. (Id.) Although Angeles had stopped taking the Trazodone, she felt that she needed to resume the medication because her lack of sleep was affecting her functioning. (Id.) Conklen gave Angeles a GAF score of 60, continued Angeles on Xanax, and prescribed her more Trazodone. (Tr. at 19, 20.)

On March 22, 2005, the SSA sent Angeles to Michael Trieger (Trieger), a licensed clinical psychologist, for a psychological evaluation. (Tr. at 212-15.) Trieger both reviewed the records from Angeles's appointments with Conklen during 2004 and saw Angeles in person. (Tr. at 212.) Angeles reported that she had been suffering from panic attacks for twenty years, and stated that there was a history of bipolar disorder in her family. (Tr. at 213.) She said that, while she had been prescribed antidepressants on several occasions, she had never taken them for very long because she did not like how they made her feel. (Id.) Angeles told Trieger that, while she occasionally helped with laundry and making the bed, she generally tried to do "as little as possible." (Id.) She stated that her preferred leisure activities included watching television, reading, and taking her dog for a walk. (Id.) Angeles suggested that she might suffer from bipolar disorder, but Trieger rejected this diagnosis, stating that her history indicated that she was suffering from depression and panic disorder. (Tr. at 214.) Trieger gave Angeles a GAF score of 58. (Tr. at 215.)

On May 4, 2005, the SSA had psychologist Margaret Wharton (Wharton) evaluate Angeles's records. (Tr. at 265, 267, 277.) Wharton found that Angeles suffered from some difficulties with anxiety, particularly in socially demanding contexts, but that these difficulties would not markedly limit her in any job tasks. (Tr. at 265-67.) Wharton specifically found that Angeles had "the capacity to perform and sustain simple tasks which have few social demands." (Tr. at 267.) Wharton also evaluated Angeles according to the criteria of Social Security Listings 12.04 and 12.06, but found that Angeles did not meet these Listings because she was only moderately restricted in participating in the activities of daily living, maintaining social functioning, and maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace. (Tr. at 287.) Wharton also found that Angeles had not experienced any extended episodes of decompensation. (Id.)

On May 19, 2005, Yan Haiyan wrote an assessment of Angeles's employment potential for the SSA. (Tr. at 133.) Yan stated that, based on Wharton's assessment of Angeles's psychological condition, and based on an assessment of Angeles's physical health performed on May 18, Angeles would be able to perform work that did not require sustained interaction with other people and that did not involve exposure to fumes or gases. (Id.) Yan identified several jobs that fit these limitations and noted that there were substantial numbers of these jobs available in Illinois. (Id.) He accordingly concluded that Angeles was not disabled for Social Security purposes. (Id.)

Angeles again visited Conklen on May 20, 2005. (Tr. at 22.) At the visit, Angeles reported having gone to see a primary physician, Dr. Cumpa, for the first time in many years. (Id.) Dr. Cumpa recommended that Angeles try antidepressants. (Id.) Angeles reported to Conklen that her weight had increased, that she lacked energy and motivation, and that she was very irritable and easily angered. (Id.) Angeles stated that she was only getting two to three hours of sleep a night and that she had not been able to afford to get her prescription for Trazodone filled. (Id.) Conklen gave Angeles a GAF score of 55-60 and recommended that she try a tricyclic antidepressant. (Tr. at 23.) Conklen gave her a prescription for Elavil and continued her on Xanax. (Id.)

On June 1, 2005, the SSA sent Angeles a letter explaining that it was denying Angeles's claims for DIB and SSI because she was not disabled under the SSA's rules. (Tr. at 73.) Angeles requested that the SSA reconsider her claims.

On August 24, 2005, Angeles returned to see Conklen. (Tr. at 24.) Angeles reported that she had been taking the Elavil and that it had helped her greatly in reducing her anxiety level and enabling her to sleep normally. (Id.) Angeles also noted that the Elavil had enabled her to go outside more often, and the difference Elavil had made for her as "amazing;" Conklen noted that Angeles was "much improved." (Id.) In spite of these apparent improvements, Conklen assigned Angeles a GAF score of 50 (Id.), which was five to ten points lower than her GAF scores from her previous visits.

The SSA requested that consultant Kirk Boyenga reevaluate Angeles's mental condition in connection with her request for reconsideration of the case. (Tr. at 262, 263.) On September 13, 2005, Boyenga affirmed Wharton's May 4 determination as written. (Tr. at 262.)

On September 15, the SSA sent Angeles a letter explaining that, after reconsideration of her case, it had decided to again deny her DIB and SSI benefits. (Tr. at 66.) One week later, on September 22, Angeles's attorney requested that her case be heard by an ALJ. (Tr. at 65.)

On November 16, Angeles again went to see Conklen. (Tr. at 26.) Angeles described her mood as good and did not report any major changes in her condition. (Id.) Conklen gave Angeles a GAF of 50 and told Angeles to continue on the Xanax and Elavil. (Id.) When Angeles returned to Conklen's office on February 15, 2006, Angeles described herself as being under a great deal of stress due to caring for her mother and brother, but also reported that she was better able to deal with stress than she had ...


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