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Allen v. Astrue

July 16, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joe Billy McDADE United States Senior District Judge


This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 13) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance (Doc. 14). On May 25, 2009, Plaintiff filed her Complaint for judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her benefits. This matter is now fully briefed and ready for disposition. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Affirmance is granted.


To be entitled to disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must prove that she is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine if the claimant is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner of Social Security engages in a factual determination. See McNeil v. Califano, 614 F.2d 142, 145 (7th Cir. 1980). The factual determination is made by using a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Maggard v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 376, 378 (7th Cir. 1999).

In the first step, a threshold determination is made to determine whether the claimant is presently involved in a substantially gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not under such employment, the Commissioner of Social Security proceeds to the next step. At the second step, the Commissioner evaluates the severity and duration of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant has an impairment that significantly limits her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, the Commissioner will proceed to the next step. At the third step, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairments to a list of impairments considered severe enough to preclude any gainful work; and, if the elements on the list are met or equaled, he declares the claimant eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

If the claimant does not qualify under one of the listed impairments at Step Three, the Commissioner proceeds to the fourth and fifth steps. At the fourth step, the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") is evaluated to determine whether the claimant can pursue her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f). If she cannot, then, at Step Five, the Commissioner evaluates the claimant's ability to perform other work available in the economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). The claimant has the burden to prove disability through Step Four of the analysis, i.e., she must demonstrate an impairment that is of sufficient severity to preclude her from pursuing her past work. McNeil, 614 F.2d at 145. However, once the claimant shows an inability to perform her past work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, at Step Five, to show the claimant is able to engage in some other type of substantial gainful employment. Id.

Once a case reaches a federal district court, the court's review is governed by 42 U.S.C. 405(g), which provides, in relevant part, "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Maggard, 167 F.3d at 379 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). A court's function on review is not to try the case de novo or to supplant the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") with the Court's own assessment of the evidence. See Pugh v. Bowen, 870 F.2d 1271, 1274 (7th Cir. 1989). A court must only determine whether the ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence and "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] own judgment" for that of the ALJ. See Delgado v. Bowen, 782 F.2d 79, 82 (7th Cir. 1986). Furthermore, in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, credibility determinations made by the ALJ will not be disturbed "so long as they find some support in the record and are not patently wrong." Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 335 (7th Cir. 1994).

However, the ALJ must articulate reasons for rejecting or accepting entire lines of evidence. Godbey v. Apfel, 238 F.3d 803, 807-08 (7th Cir. 2000). The ALJ is required to "sufficiently articulate [his] assessment of the evidence to 'assure us that [he] considered the important evidence . . . and to enable us to trace the path of [his] reasoning.'" Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993) (quoting Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287 (7th Cir. 1985)).


I. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed the instant application for disability benefits on either September 28 or October 25, 2005, alleging that her disability had begun on November 25, 2002.*fn2 (Tr. 16, 107). Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 58-63, 66-69). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on October 15, 2008, before ALJ David Thompson. (Tr. 72, 28-49). The ALJ issued his decision that Plaintiff was not disabled on December 1, 2008. (Tr. 13-25). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied; the ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-4).

II. Relevant Medical History

Plaintiff saw Dr. Thomas Herrmann in September 2003, after Plaintiff returned to the area after a five-year stint living in another area; Plaintiff had worked up until the recent move, but had been unable to find a job after the move.

(Tr. 291). Noting Plaintiff's history, Dr. Herrmann diagnosed Plaintiff with borderline personality disorder with some mood instability, with which lithium had helped in the past. (Tr. 291). Dr. Herrmann observed that Plaintiff was alert and generally cooperative; had clear thought content and logical association; no hallucinations, delusions, obsessions, or preoccupations; intact mental capacity; and fair insight and judgment. (Tr. 291). He noted that her current affect was "generally euthymic."*fn3 In October 2003, Dr. Herrmann found that Plaintiff's mood had stabilized "significantly" and that she was "reasonably stable;" he observed that she was "reasonably stable" again in November 2003 (Tr. 289-90).

In January 2004, Plaintiff reported feeling more depressed to Dr. Herrmann, which was due to not being able to get a job and to having family conflict. (Tr. 288). Dr. Herrmann found that Plaintiff was "generally stable," and "doing fairly well" in February 2004. (Tr. 287). On March 2, 2004, Dr. Herrmann noted that Plaintiff's "mood and affect [were] doing fairly well," but on March 31, 2004, she was having some depression and irritability, as well as trouble sleeping. (Tr. 285-86). Plaintiff reported "feeling extremely more depressed" in April 2004. (Tr. 284). In May 2004, Plaintiff was still having "significant depressive symptoms," and Dr. Herrmann assessed her Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score at 50. (Tr. 281, 283).

Plaintiff reported to Dr. Herrmann on June 7, 2004 that she had one or two days at a time when she felt very depressed, but then felt better for three or four days; he assessed her GAF at 55. (Tr. 282). At that time and later in the month, Plaintiff reported some problems with concentration, which Dr. Herrmann attributed to one of her medications, of which he reduced the prescribed dosage. (Tr. 280, 282). Dr. Herrmann saw Plaintiff twice in July 2004. At the first visit, Plaintiff did "not appear as cognitively impaired," though she reported "a great deal of irritability, anger, almost a paranoid type thinking." (Tr. 279). Later in the month, he reported that Plaintiff was doing better. (Tr. 278). In August 2004, Dr. Herrmann noted that Plaintiff was no longer taking lithium, and that she was having difficulty with an "unhealthy relationship." (Tr. 277). In September 2004, he reiterated that Plaintiff's relationship caused conflict, that she had some agitation, and that she had a fear of sleeping in the dark, though she did "not have actual hallucinations." (Tr. 276). In July, August, and September 2004, Dr. Herrmann found that Plaintiff's GAF was 60. (Tr. 276-78). In October 2004, Dr. Herrmann found that Plaintiff's GAF was 65, and noted that she was doing "fair," though she had some episodes of being defensive and aggressive. (Tr. 275). He recommended that she have counseling in order to return to work. (Tr. 275). In November 2004, Dr. Herrmann opined that Plaintiff was "doing reasonably well," and that her GAF was 70. (Tr. 274).

On April 16, 2005, clinical psychologist Stephen Singley interviewed Plaintiff for a mental status evaluation. (Tr. 341-44). He noted that Plaintiff's dress, grooming, and physical appearance were not out of the ordinary, and that her speech was clear, though "flat and monotone." (Tr. 341). Mr. Singley believed that Plaintiff's intelligence was "within an average to lower average range." (Tr. 341).

Plaintiff reported that, though she had her GED, she had trouble with reading and writing because she was forgetful and couldn't concentrate; she drove, but tended to avoid situations involving traffic. (Tr. 342). Plaintiff did cooking and light cleaning, but required help from her daughter with shopping and heavy cleaning. (Tr. 342). Plaintiff reported having nightmares of snakes and spiders, which she termed hallucinations, and being afraid of the dark. (Tr. 342). After asking Plaintiff a series of questions designed to assess Plaintiff's mental abilities and awareness, Mr. Singley found that she demonstrated "an impaired performance, suggesting short-term memory and/or concentration difficulties." (Tr. 343). Mr. Singley concluded by assessing Plaintiff with schizoaffective disorder, depressive type, that was moderate to severe, and a GAF score of 50, which was also the highest estimated GAF score for the last year. (Tr. 343). He suggested that Plaintiff's daughter be considered as a payee for benefits, if Plaintiff were to be eligible for them, as he had "mild qualms about her contact to reality currently." (Tr. 344).

On April 20, 2005, Plaintiff completed an Activities of Daily Living Questionnaire. (Tr. 137-41). She reported that she cooks her own meals, cleans, dusts, and does laundry. (Tr. 137). Her daughter helped her with her grocery shopping because of her back pain. (Tr. 137). Plaintiff noted that she needed help remembering to keep appointments, though not to remember to take her medications, and stated that her attention span was short and she sometimes forgot where she put things. (Tr. 138). Plaintiff left her home daily to do errands and keep appointments; someone took her to do these things, which was the same as it had been before the onset of her current condition. (Tr. 139). She also stated that she heard voices or saw people who were not around, though this did not interfere with her activities. (Tr. 138). She did not trust most other people, as she feared that they will hurt her or let other people hurt her; on the other hand, she had a few friends that she trusted. (Tr. 139). Plaintiff was able to leave home alone. (Tr. 139). She reported not sleeping well because she thinks there are snakes and spiders, as well as people biting and hitting her. (Tr. 139). Plaintiff noted that she got upset when people told her to do something or criticized her. (Tr. 140). Plaintiff often engaged in hobbies, talking on the phone, and paying bills or doing finances, and sometimes read, watched television, or listened to the radio. (Tr. 140).

On October 24, 2005, Rosemary Jordan completed a mental status exam of Plaintiff.*fn4 (Tr. 412-19). She noted that Plaintiff's appearance was unkempt, that her demeanor was preoccupied, that she had avoidant eye contact and slowed activity, that her speech was clear, that she was irritable and depressed, that she had a constricted affect, and that her thought processes were tangential and loose. (Tr. 413). Plaintiff reported having had "hallucinations" involving snakes and spiders for a couple months, and reported having gotten in a physical fight with another woman a year prior. (Tr. 414). Ms. Jordan found that Plaintiff had impaired judgment and concentration. (Tr. 414). Plaintiff denied any use of illegal drugs or abuse of alcohol, and stated that she had stopped drinking alcohol seven months prior. (Tr. 415). Ms. Jordan found that Plaintiff had deficits in impulse control skills, interpersonal skills, anger management skills, and distress tolerance skills, resulting in a moderate level of overall impairment. (Tr. 417). Her initial diagnosis was schizoaffective disorder and borderline personality disorder; Ms. Jordan assessed a GAF score of 45. (Tr. 418).

Dr. Phyllis Brister completed a Mental RFC assessment of Plaintiff on May 24, 2005. (Tr. 204-07). She found that Plaintiff was no more than moderately limited in her ability to perform any work activities, and concluded that Plaintiff had "difficulty w[ith] attention which will limit [her] to simple 1-2 step operations of a routine, repetitive nature. Due to Personality Disorder, [claimant] would do best in socially undemanding and restricted setting. Retains ability to adapt to routine. Capable of [substantial gainful activity] at this time." (Tr. 204-06). On the same day, Dr. Brister conducted a Psychiatric Review Technique, in which she found that Plaintiff had the medically determinable impairments of depression, persistent disturbances of mood or affect, and borderline personality disorder. (Tr. 208-21). She considered whether ...

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