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Leon v. Astrue

March 5, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nan R. Nolan United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Nan R. Nolan


Plaintiff Frank Leon (Leon) appeals from an ALJ's decision denying him disability insurance benefits. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Because the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, the denial of benefits is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background

Leon applied for disability insurance benefits on March 19, 2003, alleging he became totally disabled on August 28, 2001 because of spine, neck, cervical injury, cervical stenosis, and fibromyalgia (R. 176). Leon was born on November 16, 1954 and has a history of depression and neck and back pain resulting from several work-related injuries and accidents. Leon graduated high school and took two years of college level courses. The ALJ rendered a decision finding that Leon was not disabled because he was capable of performing past relevant work (R. 19-28).

Under the familiar five-step analysis used to evaluate disability, the ALJ found that Leon had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during at least the twelve month period elapsing after August 28, 2001 (step one); his degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine and fibromyalgia are severe impairments (step two); but that they do not qualify as a listed impairment (step three). The ALJ determined that Leon retained the residual functional capacity to perform light exertional work with the exceptions that he was not able to perform postural activities such as climbing, balancing, kneeling, crouching, and crawling more than occasionally, could not perform tasks that require bending to the floor more than rarely, and cannot perform any tasks that require twisting of the trunk. (R. 25). Given his RFC, the ALJ concluded that Leon was able to perform his past relevant work as a laboratory technician (step four).

II. Discussion

Under the Social Security Act, a person is disabled if he has an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). In order to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry:

(1) whether the claimant is currently gainfully employed; (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 able to perform his former occupation; and (5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any other available work in light of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (2004); 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). "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. 1985)).

Judicial 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. Stevenson v. Chater, 105 F.3d 1151, 1153 (7th Cir. 1997). 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). This Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner by reevaluating facts, reweighing evidence, resolving conflicts in evidence, or deciding questions of credibility. Estok v. Apfel, 152 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 1998).

The ALJ denied Leon's claim at step four, finding that Leon retains the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work. Leon raises four main challenges to the ALJ's decision:

(1) the ALJ did not adequately consider his depression; (2) the ALJ erred in rejecting Leon's somatoform disorder which led to an improper credibility finding; (3) the ALJ's residual capacity finding did not adequately account for the limitations in his abilities to stand and walk; and (4) the ALJ failed to consider the demands of Leon's past relevant work as a laboratory technician. There is merit to many of Leon's arguments such that a remand for further proceedings is necessary.

A. ALJ's Evaluation of Leon's Depression

Leon first argues that substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's determination that his depression did not result in any functional limitations. (R. 24). In his findings, the ALJ explicitly noted Leon's underlying diagnosis of depression. (R. 24). The ALJ then proceeded to consider the extent to which Leon's depression caused functional limitations. See Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 674 (7th Cir. 2008) (holding that if the claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment, then the ALJ must document that finding and rate the degree of functional limitation in the areas of activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation). The ALJ found that Leon's depression "responded to treatment and did not cause more than mild limitations in any of the functional areas, including his ability to perform routine activities of daily living, maintain social functioning, and maintain concentration, persistence, or pace." (R. 24). The ALJ also determined that Leon has experienced no episodes of decompensation. Id. The ALJ stated that his conclusion was "based on claimant's excellent performance on cognitive testing, as pointed out by the medical expert, but also on his ready response to treatment." Id. Dr. Daniel Schiff, the testifying medical expert and a board certified psychiatrist on whom the ALJ relied, testified that "there is insufficient consistent severe lasting evidence to be sure of any psychiatric diagnosis." (R. 675). Because the ALJ found that Leon's depressive disorder had not resulted in any functional limitations, she determined that it was not severe within the meaning of the regulations. See SSR 86-8 (noting an impairment is not severe if it is a slight abnormality or combination of slight abnormalities which would have no more than minimal effect on the individual's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities).

Leon contends that the ALJ's findings as to his mental deficiencies is not supported by substantial evidence. More specifically, Leon argues that the ALJ did not accord the opinions of Drs. Sullivan, Beckstrand, and Wharton adequate weight. With respect to Dr. Sullivan, the ALJ noted that Leon received counseling from clinical psychologist Sullivan during November and December 2001. (R. 24). The ALJ then observed that Leon did not continue his counseling with Dr. Sullivan beyond December 2001, did not undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and was not placed on any psychogenic medications until 2003, when the evidence shows that he received five prescriptions for Buspirone and two prescriptions for Alprazolam (Xanax) from his internist. (R. 24).

According to Leon, he cannot be faulted for the failure to seek treatment after December 2001. Leon relies on SSR 96-7p, which prohibits an ALJ from drawing negative inferences about a claimant's failure to seek treatment without first considering explanations for the lack of medical care. The Commissioner responds by pointing out that Dr. Sullivan's records indicate Leon only had four appointments, all in November and December 2001, and he saw improvement in this interval (R. 299-302; 320-21; 345-47). Dr. Sullivan noted that Leon's "mood was elevated and he presented with less depressive symptoms" at the November 30, 2001 appointment. (R. 321). ...

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