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Joyce Miller v. Michael J. Astrue

August 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox


Plaintiff, Joyce Miller, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Ms. Miller seeks a judgment reversing the Commissioner's final decision or remanding the matter for additional proceedings [dkt. 17], while the Commissioner seeks a judgment affirming his decision [dkt. 22]. For the reasons set forth below, Ms. Miller's motion is granted and the matter is remanded to the SSA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Joyce Miller applied for SSI on July 25, 2006, alleging that she had been unable to work since July 7, 2006,*fn2 because of pain from having lost her right eye, and depression from having experienced deaths in her family.*fn3 Her claim was denied on January 4, 2007.*fn4 Ms. Miller then filed a request for reconsideration on March 2, 2007,*fn5 which was denied on January 17, 2008.*fn6 On February 26, 2008, Ms. Miller requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was granted on February 20, 2009.*fn7 A hearing took place before ALJ John L. Mondi on April 8, 2009.*fn8 Following the hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, concluding that Ms. Miller was not disabled within the meaning of the Act at any time after her application was filed.*fn9 The Appeals Council denied Ms. Miller's request to review the ALJ decision on April 20, 2011, meaning the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner.*fn10 Ms. Miller filed this action on June 16, 2011.


The facts set forth under this section are derived from the administrative record. The section begins with a summary of Ms. Miller's background, which is followed by overviews of Ms. Miller's medical records, the documentation associated with her SSI application, her administrative hearing testimony, and the ALJ's decision in the case.

A. Ms. Miller's Background & Introduction to her Medical History

Joyce Miller was born in Chicago, Illinois on March 3, 1965.*fn11 She and her four siblings all had different fathers - she did not know hers.*fn12 She started taking care of her alcoholic mother at age twelve and has childhood memories of one of her sisters' fathers beating her mother.*fn13 Ms. Miller used marijuana from age twelve to age sixteen and was sexually assaulted by her high-school boyfriend.*fn14 She dropped out of school in 1983 after completing the eleventh grade.*fn15 She has claimed that she dropped out for two different reasons: either after running from the police following being caught with a group of classmates who were smoking marijuana*fn16 or because she was raped.*fn17 At age seventeen, Ms. Miller became pregnant and married a man who was not her boyfriend.*fn18

Between 1985 and 2005, she worked in several jobs as a cashier, cook, mail sorter, and machine operator.*fn19 In 1987, Ms. Miller's brother was killed.*fn20 In 1994, she started using cocaine "on and off" and drinking regularly around the same time.*fn21 Over the years, Ms. Miller has been arrested multiple times both for drug possession and fighting.*fn22 At the height of Ms. Miller's alcohol and drug addictions, she drank four twenty-two ounce bottles of malt liquor plus a "half"*fn23 of hard liquor daily and smoked between one and four "dime bags" of crack cocaine per week.*fn24 She has tried heroin four or five times and "happy sticks" once, but reported not liking either of these drugs.*fn25

In 2002, one of Ms. Miller's two sons was shot to death at age nineteen.*fn26 In 2004, her husband died from overdosing on heroin laced with rat poison.*fn27 Both of per parents-in-law died in the same year.*fn28 Ms. Miller stopped working in 2005 in order to help her ill mother get to and from the doctor.*fn29 In 2006, her mother died of heart problems.*fn30 On July 7, 2006, Ms. Miller lost her right eye after being stabbed with a small kitchen knife by a female "friend,"*fn31 either while she was intoxicated and engaged in gang violence,*fn32 during a drug altercation*fn33 or while she was walking down the street with the woman's boyfriend.*fn34 These events are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Ms. Miller filed for SSI eighteen days later, at age forty-one.

The following discussion of Ms. Miller's medical history is limited to the portions of her file that are relevant to her current SSI application. Therefore, we do not discuss her gynecologic issues, which resolved at age eighteen,*fn35 treatment she received for a dog bite, which healed successfully,*fn36 or any other extraneous complaints made. This leaves discussion of her eye and vision related issues and her mental health problems, as well as the documentation related to her SSI application. Since Ms. Miller has complained of disabling hypertension at various points in her application, we mention what her blood pressure was during various hospitalizations. However, since Ms. Miller did not raise the issue of hypertension in her current motion or reply, we do not address it further.

Also, the administrative record does not include medical records prior to Ms. Miller's eye injury.

However, it does reference that she has reported attending therapy sessions at Hartgrove Hospital in Chicago, Illinois ("Hartgrove"),*fn37 starting in 2004, following the death of her son.*fn38 She has also reported attempting suicide in 2005 by Tylenol overdose, but was not hospitalized and the attempt was never documented by a medical professional.*fn39 The following sections, reviewing Ms. Miller's eye treatment, application for SSI benefits, mental health treatments, and hearing are presented chronologically. Although there is some brief overlap between some of the sections, this is not material to the disposition of the case.

B. Ms. Miller's Eye Surgery & Related Follow-up

After Ms. Miller was stabbed in the right eye on July 7, 2006, she tried to treat her injury at home with ice packs and Motrin.*fn40 The next day, she presented to West Suburban Medical Center ("West Sub") in Oak Park, Illinois.*fn41 She complained of severe, sharp, throbbing pain and a complete loss of vision in her injured eye.*fn42 Her blood pressure at West Sub was measured as 132/82.*fn43 Ms. Miller was seen by an ophthalmologist there before being transferred to University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago ("UIC"), in Chicago, Illinois, later that night.*fn44 At 2:00 a.m. on July 9, 2006, doctors at UIC determined that Ms. Miller had no light perception in her right eye and operated on her ruptured right eyeball.*fn45

During surgery, they determined that Ms. Miller's injured eye was not structurally repairable and recommended an enucleation of the right eyeball.*fn46

She was discharged on July 10, 2006, with instructions to follow up with UIC's eye clinic.*fn47 Ms. Miller returned to UIC for the enucleation surgery on July 18, 2006.*fn48 A temporary eyeball was implanted and her eye was stitched closed to help the eye heal.*fn49 On July 19, the eye sight in Ms. Miller's left eye was 20/20.*fn50

Ms. Miller's post-surgery pain in her right eye subsided by September 1, 2006.*fn51 Despite trouble with keeping the eye stitched closed, her ophthalmologist reported that her right eye was "doing well."*fn52 On September 5, 2006, the eye sight in Ms. Miller's left eye was still 20/20.*fn53 During the same time frame, there is no documentation of pain, discomfort, or vision trouble in her record.

C. Ms. Miller's Application for Disability & SSA Referred Evaluations

Ms. Miller reported, on July 25, 2006, that she was unable to work due to depression and pain in her eye, without specifying which eye she was referring to.*fn54 She also claimed that she could not see well in her left eye because of blurriness.*fn55 Regarding her depression, Ms. Miller stated only that it was due to "ha[ving] a lot of deaths in [her] family recently," without elaborating on how it stopped her from working. She also complained of distractibility, trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, hallucinations, fear, and paranoia.*fn56
On September 21, 2006, Sharon Kobak, D.O., a state agency psychiatrist, assessed Ms. Miller's mental health.*fn57 Dr. Kobak diagnosed Ms. Miller with a depressive disorder, dementia, and a history of substance abuse.*fn58 These findings were incorporated into a report by another state agency psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kuester, M.D., who on November 25, 2006 noted that Ms. Miller's record contained no history of hospitalizations for her mental health issues.*fn59 Dr. Kuester also found that Ms. Miller had a number of moderate limitations: her ability to understand and remember detailed instruction; her ability to carry out detailed instruction; her ability to maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; her ability to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; her ability to interact appropriately with the general public; her ability to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; her ability to get along with co-workers or peers without distract them or exhibiting behavioral extremes; and her ability to be aware of normal hazards and take appropriate precautions.*fn60 Dr. Kuester also noted that Ms. Miller could learn and perform simple tasks adequately with ordinary supervision but should not deal with hazards or the public.*fn61 Towfig Arjmand, M.D., a state agency physician who approved the medical portion of the first negative determination, including Dr. Kuester's report, made no additional findings regarding Ms. Miller's mental health, concluded that her left eye vision was within normal limits, and predicted that a year after Ms. Miller's eye injury, the physical condition of both of her eyes would be "durationally nonsevere."*fn62

After determining that Ms. Miller was not disabled, the SSA reconsidered its decision, during which Ms. Miller was referred for two eye examinations.*fn63 On November 26, 2007, the results of the first test showed that her left-eye vision was "worse than 20/200."*fn64 On January 4, 2008, the results of the second test showed that Ms. Miller's left-eye vision, without correction, was 20/800.*fn65

The ophthalmologist who performed the second test also documented that he expected that, with correction, the left-eye visual acuity would be normal, and that otherwise, the eye examination was within normal limits.*fn66 Marion Panepinto, M.D., the state agency physician who signed off on the negative determination after reconsideration, additionally noted that Ms. Miller did not allege any new mental issues in her reconsideration documentation.*fn67 Ms. Miller was hospitalized for psychiatric issues approximately three weeks before Dr. Panepinto's report, but any documentation relating to the hospitalization was not included in her reconsideration application.

D. Psychiatric Inpatient Hospitalization

On the night of December 23, 2007, Ms. Miller, while intoxicated, walked into West Sub, laid down on the floor, and told staff she wanted to kill herself.*fn68 She was then admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit at John Madden Mental Health Center ("Madden") in Hines, Illinois, complaining that she "was suicidal, got no reasons to live for."*fn69 She reported that she ...

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