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Tina Spagnola v. Michael Astrue

August 22, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert District Judge


This matter comes before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("Report") (Doc. 31) of Magistrate Judge Philip M. Frazier recommending that the Court affirm the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny plaintiff Tina Spagnola's application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). Spagnola has objected to the Report (Doc. 32), and the Commissioner has responded to her objection (Doc. 33).

I. Report and Recommendation Review Standard

The Court may accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations of the magistrate judge in a report and recommendation. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3). The Court must review de novo the portions of the report to which objections are made. Id. "If no objection or only partial objection is made, the district court judge reviews those unobjected portions for clear error." Johnson v. Zema Systems Corp., 170 F.3d 734, 739 (7th Cir. 1999).

The Court will affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and contains no error of law. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Clifford, 227 F.3d at 869 (internal quotations and citation omitted). When it decides whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court does not reweigh the evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id.

II. Background

At the time of the Spagnola's application for benefits, she was a 44-year-old woman with an eleventh grade education and was working on her GED. She had worked in the past as a nursing home attendant, telemarketer, janitor, assistant manager, inventory specialist, materials handler, screen printer and food service worker. She suffers from polysubstance dependence, personality disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and degenerative joint disease of the left shoulder. Spagnola applied for SSI on March 14, 2006, alleging she is disabled because of the foregoing mental and physical impairments. Spagnola did not engage in substantial gainful activity after that date.

The claim made its way to an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), who conducted the five-step analysis applicable to the determination of whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). The ALJ found that Spagnola was not employed and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her SSI application and that Spagnola's impairments were severe, clearing the first two steps of the five-step inquiry. The ALJ further found that Spagnola's condition did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in the relevant regulations, and moved on to the fourth step -- assessing Spagnola's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to determine whether she could perform her past relevant work. The ALJ found, among other things, that Spagnola was able "to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions as required in the performance of unskilled work and could have occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the public in a setting without stringent speed or production requirements." R. 75. The ALJ concluded that Spagnola was unable to perform her past relevant work as a nurse's aid and a stock clerk/material handler, which are classified as medium or heavy in exertional demands.

The dispute in this case arises over whether Spagnola satisfied the fifth step of the inquiry -- whether she has the RFC to adjust to other work in light of her age, education and experience. The ALJ found that Spagnola could perform a limited range of light, unskilled work which was available in significant numbers in the national economy in such positions as cleaner, housekeeper, quality control and office helper.

In determining Spagnola's mental RFC and her ability to perform other work, the ALJ gave significant weight to the findings of examining licensed psychologist Harry J. Deppe, Ph.D., who found that Spagnola's Global Assessment of Functioning Scale ("GAF") score was 60 (on the borderline between mild and moderate symptoms or moderate difficulty in social, occupational or school functioning) and that her impairments caused her to be able to perform certain work related activities at the "only fair" or "fair" level. The ALJ also gave significantly reduced weight to the assessment of treating physician's assistant Mohamed Elsamahi, Ph.D., because she found it unreliable in light of the fact that parts of it were inconsistent with other evidence or unsupported by the record. In her opinion, the ALJ cited examples of Dr. Elsamahi's inconsistent or unsupported conclusions.

The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, leaving that decision as the Commissioner's final decision in this case. See Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2007).

III. The Report and Objections

The Report makes three main findings:

* the ALJ's assessment of Spagnola's mental RFC as able to perform a limited range of unskilled work was consistent with Dr. Deppe's assessment that her GAF score was 60 and that she was able to perform certain work related activities at the "only fair" or "fair" level;

* the ALJ considered the proper factors and adequately explained her decision to give significantly reduced weight to the opinion of Dr. Elsamahi, who is not an "acceptable medical source" under SSR 06-03p and therefore ...

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