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Sean T. Stafford v. Michael Astrue

May 24, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim


Throughout his adult life, Sean Stafford has struggled with alcohol addiction, riding a more-or-less continuous roller coaster from binging to sobriety and back again. Stafford also suffers from depression and anxiety, and he claims that these mental impairments-rather than his addiction-prevent him from working. Currently before the court is Stafford's motion for summary judgment challenging the denial of his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423, 1382c. For the following reasons, the motion is denied:

Procedural History

Stafford applied for SSI and DIB in June 2008, claiming that his disability began on July 1, 2007. (A.R. 117, 122.) The Commissioner denied his claims initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 59-62.) Stafford then requested, and was granted, a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 107.) The ALJ found that Stafford's alcohol addiction is material to his disability and, therefore, concluded that he is not "disabled" as defined in the Social Security Act. (A.R. 24.) When the Appeals Council denied review, (id. at 1), the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). Stafford then filed the current suit seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).


Stafford first used alcohol at the age of 12 and began drinking regularly at 15. (Id. at 434-36.) Since his early twenties Stafford has cycled through periods in which he binge-drinks for days, then sobers up for a number of weeks, then starts drinking again. (Id. at 434.) His drinking has led to a string of arrests, hospitalizations, debt, and damaged relationships. (Id. at 435.) At least since the beginning of 2006 Stafford has fought against his addiction, participating in group and individual therapy programs and sometimes achieving sobriety for several months. (Id. at 443, 664.) When he is sober, Stafford experiences depression, anxiety, and persistent hopelessness. (Id. at 550, 642, 663-64.) Stafford claims that his depression and anxiety became disabling on July 1, 2007. (Id. at 117, 122.) At his August 2009 hearing before an ALJ, Stafford provided both documentary and testimonial evidence in support of his claims.

A. Stafford's Evidence

Beginning in January 2006, Stafford participated in group and individual therapy sessions at Community Counseling Centers of Chicago ("C4") as part of a case management plan to address his alcohol addiction. (A.R. 388, 443.) He was able to stay clean for four months in early 2006, but in May of that year he relapsed. (Id. at 455.) By June he had stopped drinking and reported to his therapy group that "everyday he stays sober the better he feels." (Id. at 460.) This time he was able to stay sober for three and a half months, during which he repeated to Thomas Pickens, his individual therapist at C4, that his well-being improves with sobriety. (Id. at 465.) He told Pickens on more than one occasion in 2006 that idle time-and the accompanying boredom and feelings of inadequacy-threaten his sobriety.*fn1 (Id. at 465, 467.) In November 2006 Stafford told Pickens that he was depressed even before he began drinking, but that he "feels more stable now," and that his depression is "nothing serious." (Id. at 467, 472.)

Stafford went through a particularly tumultuous year in 2007, during which he was never sober for more than a month. (Id.398.) It started off smoothly-in January 2007 Stafford told Pickens that he felt "a bit anxious over the holiday but is feeling better now." (A.R. 477.) The following month he reported feeling persistent "low grade depression," and Pickens tried to help him understand that he might struggle with depression for his entire life. (Id. at 391, 479.) In March 2007 Stafford reported to Pickens that he was using cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. (Id. at 480-82.) He sobered up for a week and a half, during which time he started working at a UPS store. (Id. at 392.) But right after Stafford got paid he used again and within two weeks he had quit his job. (Id. at 484-85.) In June 2007 he reported feeling "speedy, depressed, and out-of-control." (Id. at 393.) He was hospitalized for a day and a half after a drinking binge, and reported that he was having strange feelings when sober, including feeling like he was a police officer and wanting to "shake people down on the train." (Id.)

Things continued to deteriorate around Stafford's claimed onset-date, July 1, 2007. In mid-July Stafford was hospitalized after he tried to commit suicide by climbing down on the el tracks while he was intoxicated. (Id. at 262, 265.) He was rescued by a bystander. (Id.) He later told his therapist that he never thought of hurting himself unless he was drinking. (Id. at 395.) By the end of July he had been sober for two and a half weeks and reported to Pickens and his group therapist that he was "ridiculously anxious"-more so than he had been in the past. (Id. at 394, 492.) Two months later he reported feeling "more even," said that he was starting to work out more, and reiterated that his moods improve with sobriety. (Id. at 494-95.) But by October 2007 Stafford had relapsed again, and was re-hospitalized after a police officer caught him urinating on an el platform. (Id. at 250.) In mid-November Stafford's psychiatrist described him as only "mildly anxious," but shortly thereafter he was rehospitalized with suicidal ideations during a drinking binge. (A.R. 228, 240.) The hospital discharge report notes that Stafford's anxiety is a precipitator for his drinking and interferes with his sleep. (Id. at 228.)

Stafford also experienced a series of ups and downs in 2008. In February he was arrested in an Indianapolis casino for drunken disorderly conduct and in March he presented drunk to a hospital emergency room, reporting that he had thoughts of killing himself on the el when he was intoxicated. (Id. at 307, 311, 502.) In April Stafford told Pickens that he was always depressed and agitated, and that he had enrolled in school but felt unmotivated. (Id. at 403.) That same month Stafford went on a week-long drinking binge, running up credit card bills, showing up to class drunk, and finally being admitted to the hospital when he attempted suicide with a combination of cocaine and alcohol. (Id. at 339, 344, 507.) In May Stafford dropped out of school after missing too many classes. (Id. at 510.) He told Pickens that the more often he drinks the more hopeless he becomes, and that he never feels suicidal when he is sober. (Id. at 510.) In early June Stafford reported six weeks of sobriety. (Id. at 547.) He said that he was exercising and "feeling better," but his psychiatrist noted that Stafford was anxious. (Id.) His anxiety continued into July when he started drinking again in response to a feeling of "aimlessness" and was arrested after getting into a drunken argument with a used car salesman. (Id. at 514.) He was hospitalized again in mid-July for substance abuse and suicidal ideation. (Id. at 514-15, 549.) He began drinking again upon his release and broke his arm during a fight. (A.R. 549, 642.) In mid-August he reported depression and anxiety after a week of sobriety. (Id.)

At the end of September 2008 Pickens completed an assessment of Stafford in which he noted that Stafford reported that his depression symptoms had gotten worse over the years. (Id. 433, 438.) Pickens described Stafford as hopeless, lacking in motivation, and unable to follow through with plans. (Id. at 433.) He reported that when he was drinking Stafford would consume 6-12 beers a day in addition to a few mixed drinks. (Id. at 434.) Pickens reported that Stafford said he drank to reduce symptoms of boredom, worry, and stress, but that his mood swings and anxiety are also a consequence of drinking. (Id. at 435-36.)

Stafford continued to drink on and off in the months leading up to his August 2009 hearing. (Id. at 662.) In March 2009 he reported being sober for seven weeks and noted that his mood had improved and he was sleeping well, although he was still experiencing considerable anxiety. (Id. at 663.) The next month he told Pickens that he was feeling better than he had in a long time. (Id. at 658.) By May 2009 Stafford had achieved four and a half months of sobriety, but he was battling "severe constant anxiety, irritability, fidgeting and muscle tension." (Id. at 664.) He also had what he described as a panic attack while shopping at a Wal-Mart store. (Id.) By the end of May, Stafford had been arrested after drinking and losing ...

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