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Blaisdell v. Colvin

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

May 30, 2014

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


SHEILA FINNEGAN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Alexa Annette Blaisdell seeks to overturn the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1381a. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 2 8 U.S.C. § 636(c), and filed cross-motions for summary judgment. After careful review of the record, the Court now denies Plaintiff's motion, grants Defendant's motion, and affirms the decision to deny benefits.


Plaintiff applied for SSI in February 2010, alleging that she became disabled on February 18, 1994 due to a learning disability, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder ("OCD"), and depression.[1] (R. 90, 96). The Social Security Administration denied the applications initially on September 16, 2010, and again upon reconsideration on March 15, 2011. (R. 26-31, 43-51, 54-58). Plaintiff filed a timely request for hearing and appeared before 4Administrative Law Judge John L. Mondi (the "ALJ") on January 25, 2012. (R. 338). The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, Plaintiff's mother (Janine Tasson) and her stepfather (Lou Tasson), as well as from medical expert Kathleen O'Brien (the "ME"). Shortly thereafter, on February 23, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled because there are a significant number of jobs she can perform in the national economy. (R. 16-25). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 22, 2013, (R. 6-8), and Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

In support of her request for remand, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ: (1) erred in finding that she does not meet or medically equal Listing 12.05 for mental retardation; (2) made a flawed credibility determination; (3) made a flawed residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment; and (4) improperly relied on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the "Grids") to find her capable of performing a substantial number of jobs. As discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and need not be reversed or remanded.


Plaintiff was born on February 18, 1992, was 20 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision, and has lived at all times with her parents. (R. 96, 273). She started receiving special education services in 1st grade after her elementary school assessed her with a mild mental impairment and an extremely low full scale IQ ("FSIQ") of 65 to 69. (R. 228). With the assistance of Individualized Education Programs ("IEPs") and special education classes, Plaintiff graduated from high school in 2010 at age 18. (R. 341). Her work history is best described as sporadic and limited. For example, in 2009 she was fired from part-time positions at Walgreens and The Village Squire Restaurant after only a few months because of poor attendance; she lost another part-time job at Nature's Fresh Market after one week because her cash drawer came up $300 short; and she was fired from L.A. Tan following a temporary leave of absence "due to having a friend behind the counter while working." (R. 83, 84, 269, 342-45). Most recently, she quit working at Jewel-Osco in 2011 because she could no longer lift boxes after she became pregnant with her daughter, who was born in or around July 2011. (R. 287, 290, 341, 346).

A. Medical History

On November 24, 2008, Plaintiff started seeing Conchita G. Gavino, M.D., of the Ecker Center for Mental Health due to anxiety and depression. (R. 244). Dr. Gavino's handwritten notes are largely illegible, but it appears that she saw Plaintiff on a fairly regular basis through October 26, 2009, and that she prescribed Prozac during the first visit, followed by Abilify in April 2009. (R. 238-44).

On November 26, 2008, Piper Stratton, M.A., Ed.S., completed a School Psychological Report of Plaintiff for Dundee-Crown High School. (R. 228-33). At the time, Plaintiff was a 16-year-old 11th grader with an FSIQ of 65. (R. 228-29). Her academic skills fell between the Extremely Low and Low Average range, manifesting as a vocabulary at the 4th or 5th grade level and "particular weakness" with math calculations and reasoning, including making change for a dollar. (R. 230-31). Despite these global cognitive deficits, however, Ms. Stratton noted that Plaintiff exhibited strengths in the areas of "Working Memory" (short-term auditory memory) and understanding the relationships between real or concrete objects. (R. 230).

With respect to social-emotional functioning, Plaintiff exhibited moderate levels of anxiety and depression, reporting negative and anxious thoughts, stomach aches, heart pounding, shakiness, sleeping issues, and a fear of being hurt by others. She also said that she had recently seen a doctor for these symptoms and would soon be starting Prozac. (R. 231). An IEP prepared the same day indicated that Plaintiff had been able to maintain jobs "when she has the skills necessary for them, " and could cook, clean, and do laundry. (R. 210).

Plaintiff's next IEP dated November 18, 2009 indicated that she could type very well in Vocational English and was "sweet" with "a great sense of humor." She exhibited "age-appropriate independent living skills" but continued to struggle with money and making change. (R. 193). A final IEP report from June 4, 2010 confirmed that Plaintiff had completed the course requirements for a high school diploma. (R. 185). Though she had difficulty with memory skills "especially when it comes to new concepts, " she had obtained a driver's license and was "able to multi-task with assignments." (R. 172). She was also described as "a very competent young lady who appears to know what she wants to achieve as a career after high school." (R. 185). In that regard, Plaintiff expressed interest in transitioning to the Nail Tech School to pursue cosmetology training. ( Id. ).

On June 21, 2010, David NieKamp, Psy.D., completed an Intellectual Assessment of Plaintiff for the Bureau of Disability Determination Services ("DDS"). (R. 269-72). Plaintiff told Dr. NieKamp that she had graduated from high school that spring, but suffers from headaches, stomach pain, panic attacks and a limited appetite. (R. 269). During the exam, she displayed no evidence of distractibility but she had difficulty recalling needed information. (R. 270). Dr. NieKamp assessed Plaintiff with an FSIQ of 67, which is within the range of Mild Mental Retardation and "significantly below that of her peers." (R. 271). He stated that Plaintiff "may benefit from having information presented with verbal/visual prompts and hands-on' instruction, " and would likely "flourish in an environment (i.e. home, educational, and vocational) that provides a consistent structure/routine and clear/ample prompts." ( Id. ). Dr. NieKamp assessed Plaintiff with mild mental retardation and a variety of other "Reported" impairments including depression, anxiety, learning disability, OCD, bipolar disorder, headaches and stomach pain. (R. 271-72).

In a Mental Status Evaluation completed the same day, Dr. NieKamp noted that Plaintiff's memory seemed relatively intact and she displayed appropriate thought processes. (R. 275). Her cognitive functions "appear[ed] to be operating below developmental norms, " however, suggesting that "her ability to advance in a professional setting is likely very limited" and she probably would not "move beyond... entry level positions in the near future." (R. 275-76). Dr. NieKamp diagnosed moderate to severe anxiety, mild dependent features and problems maintaining consistent employment, and assigned Plaintiff a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 60.[2] (R. 276).

A few months later, on January 25, 2011, Barbara F. Sherman, Psy.D., conducted a Psychological Evaluation of Plaintiff for DDS. (R. 286-90). Plaintiff told Dr. Sherman that it is difficult for her to understand and follow directions, though she planned to attend a cosmetology school with a special program for individuals with learning disabilities. (R. 286, 287). She reported taking psychotropic medications in the past but also said that "[b]ecause she kept forgetting to do so, she canceled her appointments." (R. 287). At the same time, Plaintiff complained that she "felt that she had obsessive-compulsive disorder, " which manifested as liking to have things tidy and in their place, liking to have her linens unwrinkled, and sometimes re-cleaning the house after she had already cleaned it. (R. 288).

Dr. Sherman diagnosed Plaintiff with cognitive disorder, NOS (not otherwise specified) and obsessive personality traits. She noted that Plaintiff was "independent for household chores, travel and personal hygiene, " and was able to articulate her ideas well with adequate judgment and no pervasive symptoms of emotional distress. However, Plaintiff did exhibit some deficits in "attentional focus, basic fund of information, concept formation and arithmetic skills, " and Dr. Sherman opined that Plaintiff cannot manage her own funds without assistance. (R. 290).

The last medical evaluation in the record is from March 10, 2011, when David Voss, Ph.D., completed a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment of Plaintiff for DDS. (R. 291-93). Dr. Voss found Plaintiff to be moderately limited in the ability to: understand, remember and carry out detailed instructions; maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; and set realistic goals or make plans independently of others. (R. 291-92). Nevertheless, Plaintiff can: "understand and remember short instructions and complete simple one and two-step tasks"; "maintain attention, concentration and persistence necessary to carry out simple one and two-step tasks at a consistent pace over a regular 40 hr work week"; "make simple work-related decisions and independently sustain a work routine without the need for close supervision"; "adapt adequately to work situations and changes that occur in the usual workplace with reasonable support and structure"; "be aware of normal hazards, plan independently and set realistic goals"; and "use public transportation or travel independently in unfamiliar settings." (R. 293).

In a Psychiatric Review Technique completed the same day, Dr. Voss found that Plaintiff has moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace, but only mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning and carrying out activities of daily living, and no episodes of decompensation. (R. 305). According to Dr. Voss, Plaintiff does not meet any of the Listings, including 12.02 for Organic Mental Disorders and 12.08 for Personality Disorders, (R. 294), and her statements about problems completing tasks, concentrating and understanding appeared to be only "partially credible." Dr. Voss explained that during Dr. Sherman's ...

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