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Joshua Cole Murphy v. Michael J. Astrue

September 12, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Finnegan


Plaintiff Joshua Cole Murphy brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking to overturn the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Plaintiff subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment seeking reversal of the Administrative Law Judge's decision. After careful review of the parties' briefs and the record, the Court now denies Plaintiff's motion and affirms the Commissioner's decision.


Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on December 20, 2007, alleging that he became disabled beginning on November 15, 2005 due to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. (R. 12, 43, 45). The Social Security Administration denied the application initially on April 25, 2008, and again on reconsideration on July 28, 2008. (R. 9, 47-60). Pursuant to Plaintiff's timely request, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Peter J. Caras held a hearing on June 17, 2010, where he heard testimony from Plaintiff, represented by counsel, Plaintiff's girlfriend, and a vocational expert. (R. 25-42). On June 24, 2010, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled because he is capable of performing a significant number of jobs available in the national economy. (R. 18-19). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 21, 2010. (R. 1-5).

Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff advances three main grounds for reversal. He argues that the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff's mental impairments do not meet or equal one of the listed impairments set forth in the regulations. He then challenges the ALJ's residual functional capacity ("RFC") determination on two grounds: first that the ALJ erred in discounting the opinion of the consultative psychologist, and second that the ALJ failed to consider whether he could perform work in light of his past inability to sustain employment.


Plaintiff was born on April 14, 1979, and was 26 years old as of his date last insured ("DLI") of March 31, 2009. (R. 14, 18, 140). He has a limited education, having left school in the ninth grade, and is able to communicate in English. (R. 18, 36, 149). His past relevant work experience included unskilled jobs as a floor tech and a light tech. (R. 18).

A. Plaintiff's Medical History

1. Plaintiff's Depression and Anxiety

The record in this matter indicates that Plaintiff first experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety in late 2007. On November 21, 2007, Plaintiff presented at the emergency room of Illinois Valley Community Hospital (IVCH) in Peru, Illinois complaining of "numbness in the face, head, both arms, and sometimes in his toes." (R. 212). Dr. Kleven Israelsen examined Plaintiff and noted that Plaintiff "has been under some stress," "[d]enies illicit drug use," "states that there is nothing that makes it worse," and "denies any other complaints." (Id.) A physical examination, chest x-ray, and blood tests were normal, and Dr. Israelsen "explained to [Plaintiff] that this may be some kind of anxiety-related episode, but there is no evidence of any acute life threatening condition." (R. 213, 215). Dr. Israelsen diagnosed anxiety, advised Plaintiff to follow up with his physician, and discharged him "in stable condition." (R. 213, 214). Plaintiff was given one milligram of Ativan*fn1 while he was in the emergency room. (R. 213).

The next day, November 22, 2007, Plaintiff presented at the emergency room of St. Margaret's Hospital in Spring Valley, Illinois with a similar complaint of numbness in his head and upper extremities. (R. 199, 203). The doctor who examined him obtained the prior day's test results from IVCH and noted that "[c]hest x-ray, EKG[,] complete metabolic panel[,] cardiac enzymes[,] CBC[,] cardiac enzymes are reviewed and are all within normal limits." (R. 199, 205-207). The nurse's notes indicate that Plaintiff had been engaged in "a 'discussion' with [his] girlfriend prior to onset"and that he "[h]as been under 'lots of stress'" after leaving his job "'because [he] couldn't take it'." (R. 202). Dr. Richard Twanow diagnosed Plaintiff with numbness, panic attacks, and depression, and discharged him with prescriptions for Ativan and Sertraline*fn2 and a follow-up referral to Dr. Kara Fess at The Hygienic Institute Community Health Center. (R. 201, 204).

On November 27, 2007, Plaintiff saw Dr. Fess at the Hygienic Institute. Dr. Fess noted that Plaintiff was seen in emergency rooms twice in the past five days complaining of numbness in his head and that he started on Zoloft four days ago. (R. 209). She further noted that he "[s]ays the symptoms came on abruptly," he has "[n]o hx [history] of panic attacks, anxiety or depression," and he drinks alcohol and admits to "intermittent" use of marijuana. (Id.) Dr. Fess assessed Plaintiff's condition as "[a]nxiety/numbness likely panic attacks," but ordered a head CT, the results of which were unremarkable. (R. 209, 232). She advised continued use of Zoloft and Ativan, and also discussed with Plaintiff using alcohol in moderation and avoiding marijuana. (R. 209).

Two months later, on January 30, 2008, Plaintiff returned to the Hygienic Institute complaining of "chest pain" and a "'strange' feeling" in the top of his head. (R. 231). He was not taking any medication at that time. (Id.) The doctor diagnosed "anxiety," prescribed Buspar*fn3 and "[l]imited" Ativan, and recommended that Plaintiff seek treatment at North Central Behavioral Health Systems (NCBH). (Id.)

Two weeks later, on February 13, 2008, Plaintiff returned to the IVCH emergency room complaining of "the general feeling that things are not right." (R. 263). Dr. David Narunatvanich noted that Plaintiff "has a history of anxiety and depression for which he has been seeing Dr. Fess," but that Plaintiff decided on his own to stop taking Zoloft after two weeks or less because "he felt funny" and that he hadn't yet started on the Buspar he was prescribed. (Id.) The doctor observed that "overall [Plaintiff] has been noncompliant with his care." (Id.) He concluded that Plaintiff "does appear somewhat depressed and anxious but is not actively homicidal or suicidal[,]. . . is not actively psychotic or manic[,] . . . [and shows] [n]o signs of hallucinations or manic behavior or pressured speech." (Id.) Concluding that Plaintiff's exam was "otherwise unremarkable except for that [he] appears somewhat depressed," Dr. Narunatvanich discharged Plaintiff after counseling him to take his medication and providing a psychiatric referral for follow-up care. (R. 264).

A month later, on March 13, 2008, Plaintiff returned to the IVCH emergency room complaining that "he seems to be having a panic attack." (R. 265). Plaintiff stated that his tongue was numb and swollen and "he had some itching in his back," however Dr. Israelsen noted that his symptoms "are very unusual for panic disorder" and "seem to be more consistent with an allergic reaction." (R. 265-266). The doctor observed a "lesion" on Plaintiff's back that "may be an early fungal dermatitis." (R. 266). He was diagnosed with an allergic reaction with skin lesion, for which he was instructed to apply a topical cream and take Benadryl, and he was advised to follow up with Dr. Shawn Bailey regarding the Celexa*fn4 he reported taking. (Id.)

A week later, on March 20, 2008, Plaintiff returned to the Hygienic Institute for a follow-up visit with Dr. Fess. (R. 227). He complained of ringing in his ears that wakes him up at night and stated that he is "[u]nable to work b/c of problems." (Id.) He indicated that Lorazepam "helps." (Id.) Dr. Fess noted that Plaintiff went to NCBH but did not follow up because he "didn't feel it was helpful." (Id.) She assessed Plaintiff as suffering from anxiety, prescribed Lorazepam, and advised him to return for a follow-up visit in three months. (Id.) A subsequent MRI of Plaintiff's brain taken in May 2008 indicated sinus inflammation and mastoiditis,*fn5 but was otherwise normal and unremarkable. (R. 267).

2. Agency Reviewing Psychologists

On March 21, 2008, Dr. Mark Langgut, PhD administered a psychological assessment of Plaintiff upon referral from the Bureau of Disability Determination Services ("DDS"). (R. 239-243). The assessment consisted of a clinical interview, psychological consultation, review of medical records, and mental status examination. (R. 240). Dr. Langgut's report, dated March 27, 2008, diagnosed Plaintiff with dysthymic disorder,*fn6 anxiety disorder with panic features, alcohol abuse in partial remission, cannabis abuse in recent remission, and personality disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) (R. 243). He concluded that Plaintiff "has difficulty with day to day functioning with significant symptoms of depression and anxiety and he has struggled with issues of addiction." (Id.) He further concluded that "[Plaintiff's] ability to care for himself is limited as he has periods of homelessness and is unable to maintain productive work due to personality and emotional difficulties." (Id.)

On April 24, 2008, Dr. Thomas Low, PhD completed an initial Psychiatric Review Technique for the DDS. (R. 244-257). He evaluated Plaintiff under categories 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and 12.08 (personality disorders).

(R. 244). Dr. Low noted the presence of dysthymic disorder, anxiety disorder with panic features, and personality disorder NOS. (R. 247, 249, 251). However, he found Plaintiff's functional limitations to be "mild" in terms of restrictions or difficulties with respect to daily living, social functioning, and maintenance of concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 254). Dr. Low also found no episodes of decompensation ...

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