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Dawn Ackerman v. Michael J. Astrue

April 7, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber


Plaintiff Dawn Ackerman (hereinafter, "Ackerman") seeks review of the final decision of the Defendant Social Security Commissioner, Michael J. Astrue (hereinafter, the "Commissioner"), who denied her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2). Ackerman has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, asking the Court to reverse the Commissioner's final decision and award benefits, or remand the case for further proceedings. For the following reasons, the Court denies Ackerman's Motion and affirms the Commissioner's final decision.


A. Procedural Background

Ackerman filed an application for disability insurance benefits in February 2005, alleging an onset of her mental disabilities on June 15, 2004. On December 18, 2008, Administrative Law Judge Paul Armstrong (hereinafter, the "ALJ") presided over a hearing at which Ackerman and a vocational expert testified. On February 19, 2009, the ALJ found that Ackerman was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the Commissioner's decision final.

B. Factual Background

1. Ackerman's Medical History

At the time of the ALJ's decision, Ackerman, an Illinois resident, was 47 years old. She has a high school education and has previously worked as an insurance claims analyst for a medical billing company. The ALJ considered Ackerman's medical evidence between January 2001 and January 2009. Throughout this period, Ackerman made various trips to the emergency room for alcohol abuse and was diagnosed with depression, borderline personality disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, bipolar disorder I, and alcohol dependence.

Between January 2001 and February 2005, Dr. Thomas Lelio treated Ackerman for major depression, personality disorder, longstanding alcohol dependence, and binge alcohol abuse. Dr. Lelio performed numerous mental examinations, finding that while Ackerman was consistently depressed, she had experienced no hallucinations and had normal speech, abstract thinking, and intelligence.

In June 2005, state-agency reviewing physician Dr. Carl Hermsmeyer determined that Ackerman's depression, personality disorder, and substance abuse caused mild restrictions of her daily living activities, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, and no episodes of decompensation. Ultimately, Dr. Hermsmeyer concluded that Ackerman had the mental capacity to perform simple one- and two-step tasks at a consistent pace.

In August 2005, another state-agency reviewing physician, Dr. Kirk Boyenga, reviewed the record and agreed with Dr. Hermsmeyer's assessment.

In November 2005, Ackerman left Dr. Lelio's care for Dr. Tanmoy Chandra. Dr. Chandra found that Ackerman had no hallucinations or suicidal thoughts, and had intact cognitive functions, memory, judgment, and insight. Dr. Chandra diagnosed bipolar disorder I without features of a panic disorder.

In January 2007, Ackerman was hospitalized after relapsing on her alcohol abuse. In November 2007, Dr. Chandra recommended Ackerman for Social Security disability benefits, noting that she had been consistently free from alcohol, but still exhibited a variety of mood symptoms and suffered from bipolar, panic, and social anxiety disorders.

In December 2007, the ALJ sent Ackerman to Dr. John Brauer for a mental examination. Dr. Brauer diagnosed Ackerman with bipolar disorder and found that she had limitations interacting with others and understanding complex instructions. While Dr. Brauer concluded that these were more than slight limitations, he found that Ackerman functioned satisfactorily and understood simple instructions.

In May 2008, Dr. Gregory Hawley began treating Ackerman. In November and December 2008, Dr. Hawley reported that Ackerman experienced no hallucinations and was a low suicide risk. In addition, while Dr. Hawley diagnosed her as suffering from mood and bipolar disorder, he found that her thought processes were consistently logical and coherent. In January 2009, Dr. Hawley recommended Ackerman for Social Security disability benefits because she was permanently disabled and could not work in any occupation due to her bipolar type I and panic disorder with agoraphobia.

2. Administrative Hearing

Ackerman testified at her administrative hearing. She said that she had difficulty concentrating and lost her union job because she made too many errors. In addition, she testified that without her medication, she had difficulty with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, agoraphobia, and hallucinations. However, with her medication she was dizzy and sleepy. She also ...

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