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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 19, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

For Dayna Charlayne Smith, Plaintiff: Ashley S. Rose, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Ashley S. Rose, Glen Ellyn, IL.

For Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant: Jeffrey Michael Hansen, LEAD ATTORNEY, AUSA-SSA, United States Attorney's Office (NDIL), Chicago, IL.


Milton I. Shadur, Senior United States District Judge.

Page 891


Dayna Charlayne Smith (" Smith" ) seeks judicial review pursuant to the Social Security Act (" Act" ), [1] more specifically 42 U.S.C. § § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), of the final decision of then Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue (" Commissioner" ) [2] denying Smith's claim for social

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security disability income (" SSDI" ) and supplemental security income (" SSI" ). Smith has moved for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. (" Rule" ) 56 or alternatively to remand for further proceedings, while Commissioner seeks affirmance of her decision through her own motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated in this memorandum opinion and order, Smith's motion to remand is granted, while Commissioner's motion for a summary judgment of affirmance is denied.

Procedural Background

On February 10, 2009 Smith filed an application for SSDI and SSI, alleging an onset of disability on December 23, 2008 (R. 13). Those claims were initially denied on June 19, 2009, and Smith's appeal for reconsideration was also denied on January 8, 2010 (id.). Smith then filed a request for a hearing on January 12, 2010 (id.), and Administrative Law Judge Kimberley Nagle (" ALJ Nagle" or simply " the ALJ" ) held that hearing on February 17, 2011 (R. 33).

On March 2, 2011 ALJ Nagle ruled that Smith was not disabled because her impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in the regulations (R. 16). Furthermore, the ALJ concluded that Smith's impairments were also not disabling after concluding that a significant number of jobs that Smith could perform existed in the national economy (R. 25). Smith requested review by the Appeals Council, but her request was denied on August 4, 2011 (R. 1), rendering ALJ Nagle's ruling the final decision of the Commissioner (id.). On October 5, 2011 Smith filed this action.

General Background

Smith, born on February 3, 1964, was 47 years old when ALJ Nagle determined that she was not disabled (R. 173). She has been married since 1997, but at the time of her application she stated that she and her husband had separated (id.). Smith has two young daughters for whom she cares with the aid of her sister Michelle Abrams (" Abrams" ) (R. 226, 262).

Smith has a high school education and had also completed two years of college before ceasing her education in 1985 (R. 207). Since 1985 Smith has worked primarily in the insurance industry, but in recent years she has worked at various jobs in the retail industry (R. 213). Most recently, from September to December 2008 she worked as a fragrance model for a retail store, passing out perfume samples to potential customers (R. 214).

Smith's application for disability benefits asserted that several medical conditions prevent her from working. That application identified the causes of her inability to work as kidney failure, liver cirrhosis, gall bladder issues, alcoholic hepatitis and depression (R. 174-75). Smith asserts that those conditions severely restrict her ability to work.

Medical Evidence

Smith's medical records show a longstanding diagnosis of depression and alcoholism dating back to at least December 1997 (R. 654). Smith's medical problems were substantially enhanced beginning in early 2008, leading to numerous hospital and doctor visits since that time. In March 2008 Smith began complaining of vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite. Smith's primary physician Dr. Corinna Wojcik diagnosed her with diarrhea, weight loss, depressive disorder and enlarged lymph nodes (R. 305).

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In October 2008 Smith went to the hospital with complaints of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. During that visit the doctors noted that Smith suffered from alcohol abuse (R. 486). Soon after that visit Smith entered an alcohol rehabilitation program at Linden Oaks for five days in December 2008 (R. 347).

In January 2009 Smith again went to the hospital with complaints of abdominal pain that had lasted a week. Diagnosing physician Dr. Keith Monson identified her as suffering from renal failure and an inflamed gallbladder (R. 344-45). Dr. Monson specifically assessed Smith as suffering from alcoholism and elevated liver enzymes, which were likely the result of alcoholic cirrhosis, as well as inflammation of the gallbladder (R. 477). Two other doctors at the hospital -- Robert King and Anis Rauf -- concluded that Smith suffered from poor appetite, a 30-pound weight loss, chronic vomiting, chronic diarrhea and abdominal pain (R. 339). Based on those conclusions Drs. King and Rauf diagnosed Smith with acute renal failure, hypertension, depression, alcohol abuse, chronic diarrhea and anemia (id.).

Later that month Smith underwent testing on her gallbladder, confirming that it was indeed inflamed (R. 474). Then in March 2009 Dr. Monson diagnosed Smith with inflammation of the gallbladder as well as an umbilical hernia, and he performed a surgical operation to remove her gallbladder and repair the hernia (R. 322).

By that time Smith had filed her disability benefits claim with the Social Security Administration. As a result she underwent a psychological evaluation in late May 2009 to assess her mental health status to aid in the adjudication of her claim (R. 409). In her evaluation Dr. Kelly Renzi found Smith's concentration to be " average" and her memory to be " poor." Smith said that she had no complications understanding directions and that her mood was depressed. In her conclusion Dr. Renzi diagnosed Smith as meeting the criteria for a depressive disorder and alcohol dependence (R. 411).

In June 2009 Smith underwent another mental health evaluation conducted by Dr. Patricia Beers (R. 413). Dr. Beers found that Smith had " mild" limitations in both her daily living activities and in maintaining social functioning (R. 423). She also found that Smith had a " moderate" limitation in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and that she had also suffered one or two episodes of decompensation -- each of extended duration (id.). Dr. Beers concluded that Smith suffered moderate limitations in her ability to understand and remember detailed instructions, her ability to carry out detailed instructions and her ability to maintain attention and concentration for an extended period of time (R. 427). Lastly, Dr. Beers found Smith to have moderate limitation in her ability to set realistic goals or make plans independently of others (R. 428).

Dr. Beers' diagnosis concluded that Smith suffered from an affective disorder characterized by loss of interest in activities, appetite disturbance, decreased energy and difficulty in concentration or thinking (R. 416). She also diagnosed Smith with a substance addiction disorder (id.). Based on her findings and diagnosis, Dr. Beers concluded (R. 425):

Claimant is able to perform basic household chores appropriately. Her social skills are intact. Her memory is somewhat limited; however, other cognitive functions remain intact. Memory difficulties suggest she is best suited to simple one-to-two step tasks and could accomplish more routine tasks. Adaptive capacities remain grossly intact.

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Dr. Beers believed that Smith was " capable of [substantial gainful activity]" (R. 429). Dr. Glenn Pittman reviewed and affirmed Dr. Beers' findings in December 2009 (R. 714-16).

Aside from undergoing psychological evaluation, Smith also underwent two residual functional capacity (" RFC" ) assessments in December 2009 to document any physical limitations she might have. Dr. Ernst Bone performed the first RFC assessment and concluded that Smith could (1) occasionally lift 50 pounds, (2) frequently lift 25 pounds, (3) stand or walk for 6 hours out of an 8 hour work day and (4) sit for 6 hours out of an 8 hour work day (R. 400). Dr. Bone based his limitations for sitting, standing and walking on the fatigue Smith experienced due to her hepatitis (id.). Smith's second RFC assessment was performed by Dr. Young-Ja Kim, who reached an identical assessment (R. 717-18). Dr. Kim noted that Smith's allegations of physical limitations were partially credible, but her severe impairments were not at the listing level at the time of his assessment and, moreover, were related to her alcohol abuse. In his medical opinion Smith's impairments were acute (R. 724).

On November 13, 2009 Smith went to the hospital with complaints of frequent falls (R. 788). On December 29, 2009 she was admitted to the hospital after reportedly having a seizure while at the grocery store -- a seizure that the doctor believed stemmed from alcohol withdrawal (id.). Smith's primary diagnosis was an alcohol-induced seizure with several secondary diagnoses, including alcoholic hepatitis and major depression (R. 802). In early February 2010 Smith visited Dr. Thelma Marin with complaints of a headache that she claimed resulted after she passed out and fell down the stairs. Dr. Marin diagnosed Smith with an intracranial hemorrhage, alcohol abuse, liver cirrhosis, depression, delirium tremens and seizures (R. 970-71).

On February 20, 2010 Smith voluntarily entered an alcohol rehabilitation program with the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and spent four days successfully completing the program before being discharged (R. 870-80). Smith soon relapsed and was brought to the emergency room on April 5, 2010 after drinking alcohol and taking a combination of pills (R. 855). The doctor diagnosed her with major depression, suicidal ideation, alcohol abuse, alcoholic hepatitis and mild anemia (id.). Four months later, on August 9, 2010, a similar episode occurred (R. ...

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