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Gillian K. Suess v. Carolyn W. Colvin

May 10, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Mary M. Rowland


Plaintiff Gillian K. Suess filed this action seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act ("SSA"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423(d), 1381a. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, this case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.


To recover Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled within the meaning of the SSA.*fn2 York v. Massanari, 155 F. Supp. 2d 973, 977 (N.D. Ill. 2001. A person is disabled if he or she is unable to per-form "any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, the ALJ conducts a standard five-step inquiry:

1. Is the claimant presently unemployed?

2. Does the claimant have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that interferes with basic work-related activities and is expected to last at least 12 months?

3. Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impairments enumerated in the regulations?

4. Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?

5. Is the claimant unable to perform any other work? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520, 416.909, 416.920; see Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 868 (7th Cir. 2000). "An affirmative answer leads either to the next step, or, on Steps 3 and 5, to a finding that the claimant is disabled. A negative answer at any point, other than Step 3, ends the inquiry and leads to a determination that a claimant is not disabled." Zalewski v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 160, 162 n.2 (7th Cir. 1985). "The burden of proof is on the claimant through step four; only at step five does the burden shift to the Commissioner." Clifford, 227 F.3d at 868.


Plaintiff applied for DIB on July 26, 2005,*fn3 alleging she became disabled on April 30, 2002, due to panic and anxiety attacks. (R. at 220). The application was denied, after which Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 127--32). The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on July 10, 2007 (id. at 29--54), and denied benefits 17 days later, on July 27, 2007 (id. at 102--13, 132). The Appeals Counsel accepted the request for review and remanded the case, directing the ALJ to further consider Plaintiff's work history, her mental impairments, and the ALJ's RFC finding, including taking evidence from a vocational expert, if war-ranted. (Id. at 114--17).

On March 30, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing conducted by video teleconferencing before an ALJ. The ALJ also heard testimony from Ellen Rozenfeld, Psy.D., a medical expert ("ME"), and William Newman, a vocational expert ("VE"). (R. at 77, 91, 162). Following this hearing, the ALJ again denied benefits. (Id. at 11--26). The Appeals Council denied review. (Id. at 1--3). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561--62 (7th Cir. 2009).

Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of April 30, 2002, through her date last insured of March 31, 2009.*fn4 (R. at 13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments consist of "questionable" fibromyalgia; "possible" carpal tunnel syndrome; headaches; history of dizziness; major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder; and somatoform disorder. (Id. at 14). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (Id. at 14--16). The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn5 and determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform "light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)" with the following additional limitations: lifting 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for at least six hours each in an eight hour workday; sitting for six to eight hours in an eight hour workday; using upper extremity for activities that do not require repetitive/constant simple grasping; and simple, routine, low stress job tasks that involve only routine changes (no multiple changes) and require working primarily alone, with no regular general public contact. (Id. at 16, 92--93). Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ deter-mined at step four that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work through the date she was last insured. (Id. at 24, 93). At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC, her vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can per-form, including work as a machine feeder, hand packer, and housekeeper/cleaner. (Id. at 25, 93). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the SSA as of the date she was last insured. (Id. at 26).


Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by § 405(g) of the SSA. In reviewing this decision, the Court may not engage in its own analysis of whether the plaintiff is severely impaired as defined by the Social Security Regulations. Young v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004). Nor may it "reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts in the record, decide questions of credibility, or, in general, substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner." Id. The Court's task is "limited to determining whether the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing § 405(g)). Evidence is considered substantial "if a reasonable person would accept it as adequate to support a conclusion." Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 473 (7th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence must be more than a scintilla but may be less than a preponderance." Skinner v. Astrue, 478 F.3d 836, 841 (7th Cir. 2007). "In addition to relying on substantial evidence, the ALJ must also explain his analysis of the evidence with enough detail and clarity to permit meaningful appellate review." Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 351 (7th Cir. 2005).

Although this Court accords great deference to the ALJ's determination, it "must do more than merely rubber stamp the ALJ's decision." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d Suess v. Colvin, No. 11 C 4090 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). The Court must critically review the ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ has built an "accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion." Young, 362 F.3d at 1002. Where the Commissioner's decision "lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, the case must be remanded." Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002).


Plaintiff raises the following arguments in support of her request for a reversal or a remand: (1) the ALJ failed to support her finding that claimant could perform the physical requirements of light work; (2) the ALJ erred by questioning the diagnosis of the treating physician;*fn6 (3) the ALJ committed numerous factual and legal errors in assessing claimant's credibility; (4) the ALJ failed to consider claimant's headaches, need to lie down, panic attacks and somatization disorder; and (5) the ALJ failed to weigh the uncontradicted opinion of her treating physician, David Dansdill, M.D. in violation of the Agency's regulations and rulings. (P's Mot. 2).

A. Relevant Medical and Vocational Evidence in the Record

It is undisputed that Suess has an anxiety disorder that results in panic attacks.

(R. at 14, 34, 61). She worked at Honeywell for 25 years, until she went on sick leave in April 2002 due to her worsening anxiety and panic attacks. (Id. at 37, 45). During her panic attacks, her symptoms include: shakiness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, feeling faint almost to the point of passing out, and stomach and intestinal cramps. (Id. at 34, 39--40). She suffers dizziness,*fn7 her balance is affected, and she cannot concentrate to the point that she does not recall what is said to her. (Id. at 47, 75). Her anxiety disorder results in her suffering from "severe headaches due to stress" and extreme fatigue. (Id. at 47). It also makes it difficult for her to concentrate. (Id. at 77). In addition, Suess has been diagnosed with depression and somatoform disorder. (Id. at 78). Leaving home or facing a deadline brings on more panic attacks. (Id. at 69). At her 2007 hearing, she testified that she does not attend movies, attend church, go to restaurants, or travel out of town. (Id. at 43--44).

Plaintiff has taken numerous medications to treat her anxiety; some of which produced side-effects she was unable to tolerate. She also testified to financial hard-ship preventing her from seeking either medication or counseling. For instance, while she was still working at Honeywell, she was taking Xanax three times per day and Effexor; these medications left her very tired and did not control her panic attacks. (R. at 37--38, 42). According to the medical records, while being seen by Dr. Dansdill in early 2002, in addition to the Effexor, she was prescribed 10 mg daily of Paxil for anxiety, with the dosage increasing to 30 mg per day. (Id. at 320). Howev-er, Dr. Dansdill's notes indicate that "she has increasing shakiness and anxiousness with each increase in the dose." (Id. at 320). On September 5, 2003, Plaintiff can-celled her appointment with Dansdill and requested a generic substitute for the Effexor due to a lack of insurance. (Id. at 308).

In March 2005, Jeffrey Schleich, M.D. prescribed her 20 mg of Paxil per day, apparently "due to expense." (R. at 325). Dr. Schleich also directed her to take Xanax, as needed. (Id.) In July of that year, despite the medication, she was still reporting "panic attacks really bad when out in public." (Id. at 324). It appears Dr. Schleich then switched her to Prozac. (Id. at 323). However, 40 mg of Prozac left her light-headed (id. at 322), so her dose was reduced to 30 mg (id. at 321). Dr. Schleich notes that "If she is able to tolerate the 30 mg and still has not enough relief, we may be able to get her up to the 40 mg." (Id. at 321). The record further notes that she has "no insurance." (Id. at 324).

In June 2005, Dr. Dansdill, after treating Plaintiff for over two years, completed a Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire. (R. at 332--36). In it, he indicates that she was "severely limited by panic attacks [and] agoraphobia." (Id. at 333). He opined that Plaintiff was incapable of "even 'low stress' jobs" and that her attention and concentration would be interrupted frequently to occasionally during a typical work day. (Id.). He notes that Prozac leaves Suess nauseous and Alprazolam leaves her drowsy. (Id.). Finally, given the likelihood of good days and bad days, Dr. Dans-dill opined that Plaintiff would "likely be absent from work" more than four days per month. (Id. at 335).

In February 2006, Gerald K. Hoffman, M.D. performed a psychiatric evaluation at the request of the Bureau of Disability Determination Services. (R. at 365). He confirmed the diagnosis of generalized anxiety "complicated by Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia," and opined that the Panic Disorder is the "primary reason for the degree to which her life is currently limited." (Id. at 366). Dr. Hoffman also ...

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