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Ripley v. Colvin

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

June 2, 2014

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Jennifer Ripley ("Plaintiff" or "Ripley") seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Carolyn Colvin, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for Disability Income Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on April 19, 2011. The Appeals Council denied review, and Ripley filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings to reverse the ALJ's decision. The Commissioner has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking to uphold the ALJ's decision. The parties have consented to have this Court conduct all proceedings in this case, including an entry of final judgment. 28 U.S.C. § 636(e); N.D.Ill. R. 73.1(c). For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion is granted.

I. Legal Standard

A. The Social Security Administration Standard

In order to qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate that he is disabled. An individual does so by showing that he cannot "engage in 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." 42 U.S.C. § 4243(d)(1)(A). Gainful activity is defined as "the kind of work usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b).

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") applies a five-step analysis to disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The SSA first considers whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity during the claimed period of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). It then determines at Step 2 whether the claimant's physical or mental impairment is severe and meets the twelve-month durational requirement noted above. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). At Step 3, the SSA compares the impairment (or combination of impairments) found at Step 2 to a list of impairments identified in the regulations ("the Listings"). The specific criteria that must be met to satisfy a Listing are described in Appendix 1 of the regulations. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairments meet or "medically equal" a Listing, the individual is considered to be disabled, and the analysis concludes; if a Listing is not met, the analysis proceeds to Step 4. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

Before addressing the fourth step, the SSA must assess a claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which defines his exertional and non-exertional ability to work. The SSA then determines at the fourth step whether the claimant is able to engage in any of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can do so, he is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot undertake past work, the SSA proceeds to Step 5 to determine whether a substantial number of jobs exist that the claimant can perform in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience. An individual is not disabled if he can do work that is available under this standard. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

B. Standard of Review

A claimant who is found to be "not disabled" may challenge the Commissioner's final decision in federal court. Judicial review of an ALJ's decision is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A court reviews the entire record, but it does not displace the ALJ's judgment by reweighing the facts or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Instead, the court looks at whether the ALJ articulated an "accurate and logical bridge" from the evidence to her conclusions. Craft v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 668, 673 (7th Cir. 2008). This requirement is designed to allow a reviewing court to "assess the validity of the agency's ultimate findings and afford a claimant meaningful judicial review." Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 2002). Thus, even if reasonable minds could differ as to whether the claimant is disabled, courts will affirm a decision if the ALJ's opinion is adequately explained and supported by substantial evidence. Elder, 529 F.3d at 413 (citation omitted).

II. Background

A. Procedural History

Ripley disputes for the second time a decision of Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Daniel Dadabo. The ALJ first denied Ripley's application on February 26, 2008. She subsequently sought relief in federal court. On February 26, 2010, United States Magistrate Judge Michael Mahoney issued a Report and Recommendation, finding that the Commissioner's decision should be remanded for further proceedings. The District Court adopted the Report.

Judge Mahoney noted numerous errors in the ALJ's decision. These included: (1) the failure to draw a logical bridge between the evidence and the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff did not meet or equal a listed impairment; (2) providing an insufficient analysis for giving limited weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Jennifer Takata; (3) inadequate reasons for assigning "very limited weight" to consulting psychologist, Dr. Barbara Sherman; (4) the lack of a logical bridge linking the record and the RFC determination; (5) incorrectly discounting the records of neurologist Dr. Merrill Reiss; and (6) a misplaced reliance on several medical issues, including a lack of treatment for multiple sclerosis ("MS") and Plaintiff's pregnancy. (R. 548-85).

On remand, additional medical and psychological evaluations were performed by Dr. Robert Prescott and Dr. Norma Villanueva, as noted below. ALJ Dadabo then held a supplemental hearing on February 18, 2011. After taking testimony from medical experts Dr. Hilda Marin and Dr. Kennise Herring, the ALJ issued his decision that once again found Ripley to be not disabled.

B. Facts

Magistrate Judge Mahoney carefully reviewed the medical records connected with the ALJ's 2008 decision. The Court adopts Judge Mahoney's fact findings and incorporates them as if fully set forth herein. Only newly-obtained medical records are discussed below.

On November 12, 2010, Dr. Robert Prescott conducted a neuropsychological examination of Ripley and applied the Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Battery. Dr. Prescott determined that Ripley showed deficiencies in several areas, especially memory, rhythm, and arithmetic scales. Plaintiff also demonstrated difficulties in her short term verbal and non-verbal memory. For example, she was unable to distinguish between geometric figures after a 30 second interval and could not recall words after four reiterations of them. The rhythm scale, which measures attention and concentration, showed that Ripley had difficulty in counting the number of beeps on a tape. She also showed problems in serial 7's and 13's and could not write Roman numerals correctly. In contrast to an earlier observation by psychologist Dr. Bylsma, Dr. Prescott noted that Ripley displayed good effort during her testing. He concluded that Ripley suffered from a cognitive disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) that was related to MS, depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder. (R. 645-49).

On November 23, 2010, Ripley also underwent an examination by internal medicine specialist Dr. Norma Villanueva. After reviewing Ripley's history of headaches, blurred vision, fatigue, and balance problems, Dr. Villanueva confirmed the long-standing conclusion that Plaintiff suffers from multiple sclerosis, migraine headaches, cordiolipid abnormalities, and obesity. A normal range of motion was noted for neck, shoulder, knee, hip, and spinal rotations. Ripley's eye exam showed 20/50 vision in both eyes. (R. 653-61).

Plaintiff also sought follow-up treatment from neurologist Dr. Sailaja Marmareddy after the ALJ first denied her application for benefits. A December 2010 MRI of the brain showed several bilateral cerebral white matter lesions that were compatible with Plaintiff's prior diagnosis of MS. However, the lesions were less conspicuous than those noted in pre-2008 studies. (R. 671). Dr. Marmareddy stated that Ripley had been non-compliant with her treatment, though she did not elaborate on what this included. A demylinating disorder was again noted. Ripley was found to be experiencing a relapse episode when she saw the neurologist in December 2010. (R. 670).

C. Hearing Testimony

Ripley appeared at a hearing before ALJ Dadabo on February 18, 2011. She had given birth to three children since the last hearing in 2007 - in sharp contrast to the eight miscarriages that Ripley had earlier experienced. Ripley was 42 years old at the time of the hearing. She lived with her parents, who help care for her children.

Ripley described a typical day as starting with difficulty in getting her legs and arms to move. Performing simple tasks like changing diapers left her "completely zapped." (R. 491). Getting into the shower can take up to half an hour. Ripley described her average level of fatigue as a 7 out of 10. She must take naps every day from one-half to two hours, though Ripley stated that her need for rest varies. She continued to experience blurred vision, which severely restricts her ability to drive on a regular basis. (R. 493). Ripley's vision and other problems improved when she was pregnant. But her condition had deteriorated since she gave birth to her youngest child. (R. 494-96). Ripley stated that one of her doctors had only recently placed her on a new medication that appeared to be helping. (R. 498).

Internal medicine specialist Dr. Martin also testified at the hearing. Dr. Martin thoroughly reviewed Ripley's medical history. She noted that the Topamax that had recently been prescribed for Plaintiff was designed to treat migraine headaches, not MS. Though Dr. Marmareddy's recent records indicated some decreased tactile sensitivity, the general record indicated that Plaintiff's symptoms did not correlate with significant clinical findings. Her symptomology was not inconsistent with the relapsing nature of MS. Dr. Martin found that Ripley had a low probability of experiencing remitting/relapsing or waxing and waning symptoms with her MS. The expert did not believe that MS had been active during most of the claimed disability period. Dr. Martin noted, however, that MS symptoms abate during pregnancy. After considering Ripley's complaints about headaches and blurred vision, Dr. Martin concluded that, excluding all psychological concerns, Ripley had the RFC for light work prior to 2010. She stated that could have changed in light of Dr. Marmareddy's recent report. A number of exertional and non-exertional restrictions were noted as part of the RFC. Dr. Martin concluded that Ripley had severe impairments of MS, obesity, and migraine headaches. None of the conditions met or medically equaled a listed impairment.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Herring also testified at the hearing. Dr. Herring stated that she could not conclude from the prior psychological reports that Ripley suffered from a severe mental impairment during the six years preceding 2010. She noted that Dr. Sherman had been unable to diagnose an Axis I or Axis II condition, meaning that no mental health restriction could be drawn from the report.[1] However, Dr. Herring stressed that she could not comment on why Dr. Sherman did not assign a diagnosis. (R. 539-40). In addition, no Psychiatric Review Technique ("PRT") had been conducted for Plaintiff. Dr. Herring concluded that the mental impairments that Dr. Sherman had noted on her report were not clearly tied to a mental health impairment. (R. 528-29). The psychological expert ...

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