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Lisa Whitney v. Michael J. Astrue

August 24, 2012

LISA WHITNEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Edmond E. Chang

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Lisa Whitney seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1381a, and 1382c(a)(3)(A). The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. R. 18, 27.*fn1 For the reasons stated below, Whitney's motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part [R. 18], and the SSA's motion is denied [R. 27].

I.

In February 2007, Whitney applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging that she was disabled since April 1, 2005. Tr. 107.*fn2 The SSA denied Whitney's application both initially and upon reconsideration.

Tr. 62-80. In January 2008, Whitney filed a timely written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Tr. 81. In March 2009, Whitney, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before the ALJ. Tr. 26. A medical expert was the only other witness who testified. Id. In May 2009, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Whitney's claim for benefits. Tr. 53-59. The SSA's Appeals Council denied Whitney's request for review in May 2010, making the ALJ's ruling the final decision of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Tr. 1-3; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. This suit followed. R. 1.

II.

A.

Whitney was born in 1971, and was 33 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date. Tr. 107. She is divorced and has two children who live with her ex-husband. Tr. 28. Whitney has completed her GED and a "couple college courses." Tr. 29, 161.

Whitney's documented work history shows sporadic employment. Her first and longest period of employment was with a grocery store, where she worked as a cashier from 1988 to January 2005. Tr. 163. After she was let go from the store, she found a new job as a telemarketer in February 2005. Id. Whitney remained there for about one month. Id. She then moved to a job as a cashier from December 2006 until around March 2007.*fn3 Her next period of employment began and ended in June 2007, when she worked as a cashier for less than a month. Tr. 31. Five months later, she found employment with Varsity Calendar. Tr. 32. This job also lasted for only one month. Id. In 2008, Whitney held two separate jobs as a store clerk: one in January, and the other in July. Tr. 30. Both jobs lasted less than one month. Tr. 30-31. Finally, she worked as a convenience store cashier for a few weeks in February 2009. Tr. 29.

B.

Whitney, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before the ALJ in March 2009. Tr. 27. The ALJ first questioned Whitney about her employment history. Whitney testified that she was let go from her first cashier job in 2005 because her medical treatments conflicted with her work schedule. Tr. 32-33. She testified further that she quit each job she held from 2007 to 2008. Tr. 30-32. Whitney stated that she struggled with stress and personality conflicts at work. Id. Lastly, she explained that she was released from her cashier job in 2009 because her "till came up short." Tr. 29. Since then, Whitney has not obtained any other type of employment. Id.

Next, the ALJ asked Whitney about her health problems and symptoms. Tr. 33. Whitney testified that she was diagnosed with delusional disorder in 1997 and experiences anxiety, panic attacks, anger management problems, and suicidal ideations as well. Tr. 33-38. Whitney labeled her anxiety as constant and stated that

However, the form is not completed, signed, or dated, so it is unclear how long Whitney held this cashier position. Id. It appears that the work history report was attached to a March 23, 2007 letter sent by Whitney's counsel, so one could infer that Whitney was employed in this cashier position from December 2006 until at least March 2007. At the ALJ hearing, when asked about her work experience, and specifically about work experience in 2006 and 2007, Whitney made no mention of this cashier position at Certisaver. Tr. 31. it causes her to pace around the house. Tr. 36-37. When describing her panic attacks, she testified that her hands go numb, her ears start to ring, and it feels like she is having a heart attack. Tr. 37. Furthermore, Whitney stated that she regularly becomes paranoid about the people around her and believes that they are persecuting her. Tr. 33, 37. In one example, she explained that she believed her treating physician at the time was "sending people into mess with [her] at work . . . ." Tr. 37. She also testified that she has a short temper and tends to "snap over things that normal people wouldn't . . . ." Tr. 33. Lastly, she stated that she easily becomes suicidal and has already made two attempts on her life. Tr. 34.

The ALJ also questioned Whitney about her record of cocaine and alcohol abuse. Tr. 33. Whitney testified that although she was not currently in treatment, she stopped using cocaine one month before the hearing. Tr. 33-34. She also stated that she is no longer abusing alcohol. Tr. 34. Moreover, Whitney explained that she was not currently taking her prescribed medication and had stopped seeing a doctor since the end of 2008. Id.

Regarding her daily activities, Whitney testified that she mostly sleeps, watches television, and listens to music. Tr. 35. She cannot drive due to a suspended license, but will sometimes walk to a nearby store. Tr. 35-36. She also stated that she does not help around the house and has a contentious relationship with her housemates-her mother and her mother's boyfriend. Tr. 33, 38.

C.

Medical documentation in the administrative record covers the period between 1999 and 2007. Throughout most of this time, Whitney received psychiatric treatment from Dr. Riaz Baber for paranoid delusions. Tr. 227-41. Dr. Baber saw Whitney at least once every four months from June 1999 until February 2005. Id. During the first two years of treatment, Dr. Baber's notes mention that Whitney complained regularly of being paranoid. Tr. 239-41. The same notes also reported, however, that Whitney admitted consuming alcohol heavily. Id. Furthermore, the notes stated that Whitney had tried to stem her alcohol use, but would regularly relapse. Id.

During the latter four years of treatment, Dr. Baber noted that, while struggling with paranoid delusions and anxiety, Whitney began abusing drugs in addition to alcohol. Tr. 227-239. The doctor specifically mentioned the following drug and alcohol use: cocaine in May 2001 and December 2004, marijuana in October and November 2002, crystal meth in June 2004, and heavy drinking in August 2003 and August 2004. Id.

One other noteworthy progress note written by Dr. Baber is from November 20, 2001. Here, the doctor documented that Whitney had a 75-day period of sobriety. Tr. 238. But Whitney complained that, during this period, she began "crying a lot" lately. Id. She had also just learned that her son had been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Id.

In addition to Dr. Baber's notes, Whitney's medical records show that she has received care at several hospitals and treatment facilities in the Chicago area for mental distress and substance abuse. Beginning in February 2003, Whitney went to Linden Oaks Hospital to receive treatment for her depression and paranoid thinking. Tr. 252. During her month-long stay, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and received individual and group therapy. Tr. 252, 263. During a psychiatric evaluation, she admitted to having a history of cocaine dependence, heavy alcohol use, and abusing her medications. Tr. 256, 263. Upon discharge from the hospital, the psychiatrist adjusted her medication and urged her to comply with her medication management plan.Tr. 252.

In November 2004, Whitney sought treatment for "addiction to crack cocaine and also alcohol dependence" at Central DuPage Hospital. Tr. 274. During the hospital-admission process, she reported smoking crack cocaine regularly for the past two to three months. Id. With regard to Whitney's alcohol dependence, she admitted to having a "revolving door" experience with Alcoholics Anonymous. Id. Whitney was discharged from the hospital after only a few days due to her noncompliance with the treatment plan. Tr. 275-76.

Despite being discharged, Whitney attended a follow-up psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Melvin Hess, a psychiatrist with Central DuPage Hospital on November 24, 2004. Tr. 277-79. During this evaluation, Dr. Hess diagnosed Whitney with major depression, a potential bipolar disorder, and cocaine dependence. Tr. 279. He also noted that Whitney's history of addiction, starting with alcohol in 1997, had progressed to gambling and crack cocaine ...


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