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Pizano v. Colvin

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

April 22, 2014

SUSAN M. PIZANO, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff Susan M. Pizano's (Pizano) motion for summary judgment is granted in part, and Defendant Social Security Administration's (SSA) motion is denied. This matter is remanded to the SSA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


In July 2010, Pizano applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), contending that she suffered from certain physical and mental impairments. Pizano's application was denied, and then denied again on reconsideration. Pizano then requested an evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). After a hearing, the ALJ denied the claim for SSI, and Appeals Council subsequently denied Pizano's request for review. Pizano has filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to have the ALJ's decision reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, and seeking in the alternative to have this case remanded to the ALJ for further proceedings to correct errors made by the ALJ. Defendant has filed a motion for summary judgment seeking an affirmance of the ALJ's decision.


Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), a party can seek judicial review of administrative decisions made under the Social Security Act. When an ALJ's decision is deemed to be "the final action of the Social Security Administration, the reviewing district court examines the ALJ's decision to determine whether substantial evidence supports it and whether the ALJ applied the proper legal criteria." Allord v. Astrue, 631 F.3d 411, 415 (7th Cir. 2011).


An ALJ examines a claim of disability under a five-step process. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673-74 (7th Cir. 2008). In step one, the ALJ "considers whether the applicant is engaging in substantial gainful activity." Id. In step two, the ALJ "evaluates whether an alleged physical or mental impairment is severe, medically determinable, and meets a durational requirement." Id. In step three, the ALJ "compares the impairment to a list of impairments that are considered conclusively disabling." Id. If the applicant's impairment satisfies "or equals one of the listed impairments, then the applicant is considered disabled" and the inquiry ends. Id. If the inquiry continues, in step four, the ALJ "assesses an applicant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and ability to engage in past relevant work." Id. In step five, the ALJ "assesses the applicant's RFC, as well as her age, education, and work experience to determine whether the applicant can engage in other work" and "[i]f the applicant can engage in other work, [s]he is not disabled." Id.

In the instant appeal, Pizano argues: (1) that the ALJ erred by failing to accord proper weight to the opinion of Pizano's treating psychiatrist, (2) that the ALJ erred by failing to properly determine Pizano's RFC, and (3) that the ALJ erred in analyzing Pizano's credibility.

I. Opinion of Treating Psychiatrist

Pizano argues that the ALJ failed to accord sufficient weight to the opinion of Dr. Sharon Lieteau (Lieteau) who was Pizano's treating psychiatrist. The opinion of a treating psychiatrist "is entitled to controlling weight if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence." Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010)(addressing the consideration of the treating psychiatrist in that case)(internal quotations omitted)(quoting Larson v. Astrue, 615 F.3d 744, 749 (7th Cir. 2010)). An ALJ that declines to give controlling weight to a treating psychiatrist's opinion "must offer good reasons for discounting" the opinion. Id .; see also Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 842-43 (7th Cir. 2007)(stating that an ALJ is permitted to give less weight to a treating physician's medical opinion if it "is inconsistent with the opinion of a consulting physician or when the treating physician's opinion is internally inconsistent, as long as [the ALJ] minimally articulates [her] reasons for crediting or rejecting evidence of disability").

In the instant action, the ALJ noted that Lieteau had indicated that Pizano had "extreme functional limitations in February 2009." (AR 32). The ALJ also noted that in 2009 Pizano had "just started treatment, " and that the facts indicated that the limitations opined by Lieteau were "based largely on subjective complaints." (AR 32). The ALJ concluded that Lieteau's opinion as to the "degree of limitation" was not "supported by the counseling notes." (AR 32). The ALJ indicated that she gave Lieteau's opinion "some" weight, "but not controlling weight." (AR 32).

SSA contends that the ALJ properly referenced the length of Pizano's treatment because it is appropriate for an ALJ to consider the length of a treatment relationship between a treating psychiatrist and an applicant in giving weight to the psychiatrist's opinion. An ALJ is instructed pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c), that "the longer a treating source has treated [the applicant] and the more times [the applicant has] been seen by a treating source, the more weight [the ALJ should] give to the source's medical opinion" and that "[w]hen the treating source has seen [the applicant] a number of times and long enough to have obtained a longitudinal picture of [the applicant's] impairment, [the ALJ should] give the source's opinion more weight than [the ALJ] would give it if it were from a nontreating source." 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2)(I).

While the ALJ in the instant action properly considered the length of the treatment relationship between Pizano and Lieteau, the record does not reflect that the ALJ properly assessed the extent of that relationship or properly assessed the record detailing Lieteau's findings during that relationship. The ALJ discounted the value of Lieteau's opinions because Pizano had "just started treatment" with Lieteau when Lieteau gave her opinion in 2009. However, the record reflects that Lieteau had an extensive and ongoing treatment relationship with Pizano prior to the hearing before the ALJ. The record reflects that Lieteau had weekly meetings with Pizano starting in early 2009 and that Lieteau was Pizano's treating psychiatrist for approximately one year while Pizano was in a residential treatment program. (AR 44, 512). The record also reflects that ...

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