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Williams v. Colvin

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 2, 2014

GENE WILLIAMS on behalf of PAMELA J. TOWNSEND, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee

Argued June 11, 2014

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division. No. 1:12-CV-153-JEM -- John E. Martin, Magistrate Judge.

For Gene Williams, Plaintiff - Appellant: Randal S. Forbes, Attorney, Angola, IN.

For CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant - Appellee: Javitt J. Adili, Attorney, Social Security Administration, Office of the General Counsel, Region V, Chicago, IL.

Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and POSNER and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 611

Posner, Circuit Judge 

Pamela Townsend applied for social security disability benefits and supplemental security income in February 2003. She was 44 years old and claimed she'd become incapable of full-time gainful employment in May 2002 when she had stopped working as a result of a cascade of physical and psychiatric ailments. In January 2012 an administrative law judge decided that she had indeed become totally disabled, but not until November 2008. By the time that decision was rendered she had died (of pulmonary diseases apparently unrelated to the ailments alleged to have made her totally disabled). Her father, Gene Williams, was substituted for her, and he argues (appealing from the district court, which upheld the administrative law judge's decision) that she had become totally disabled earlier. If so, her estate, which he represents, is entitled to the additional disability insurance benefits (but not supplemental security income) to which she would have been entitled. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.503(c), (d), 416.542(b)(4), 416.1334.

Williams had her first hearing, which was before a different administrative law judge, in November 2004. She and her father both testified. The administrative law judge determined that she was not totally disabled, but she appealed, and in May 2007 the decision was reversed by the district court and remanded to the Social Security Administration. After a hearing at which father and daughter again testified, the administrative law judge again denied benefits and this time the Social Security Administration's appeals council reversed and remanded, directing that on remand the case be assigned to a different administrative law judge. In January 2012, after a hearing in 2011 at which neither Townsend nor her father testified though both were at the hearing, the new administrative law judge held that Townsend had become totally disabled as of November 1, 2008. Townsend died several months after the hearing and it thus was Williams who appealed the administrative

Page 612

law judge's ruling partially adverse to his daughter's claim. He wanted the date on which she had become totally disabled pushed back to May 1, 2002. But the district court affirmed the administrative law judge's decision concerning the onset date, precipitating the father's appeal to this court.

It is not disputed that by May 2002 and continuing until her death, Townsend suffered from fibromyalgia, defined by the Mayo Clinic's staff as " a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals," and that it sometimes follows " significant psychological stress." Mayo Clinic, " Diseases and Conditions: Fibromyalgia," www. mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fibromyalgia/basics/defi nition/con-20019243 (visited June 24, 2014). She testified at her first two hearings (remember that she didn't testify at the third one) that she had chronic pain (including burning pains in her hands, shoulders, neck, back, and knees), edema (swelling in limbs--mainly the legs, in her case--caused by excess fluids trapped in bodily tissues), severe headaches, and difficulty sitting, standing, and walking; that she had leg tremors and fell frequently; that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety with acute episodes (panic attacks), depression, night terrors, and sleepwalking (with the bizarre feature that she would smoke and sometimes even cook while sleepwalking); and that her psychiatric problems had been exacerbated by her being raped in 2002.

All these conditions were corroborated by extensive medical records--she had been examined by a number of doctors and therapists between 2002 and her death--and by testimony by both her parents (with whom she lived).

Her health deteriorated in 2008. She had to use a cane in walking, fell a lot because of tremors in her leg, and by January 2009 had to use a walker. In finding that she hadn't become totally disabled until November 2008, the administrative law judge (the second one, remember) began with the testimony of the only witness (besides a vocational expert) at the hearing before her: a doctor who testified that the medical evidence in the record supported diagnoses of " fibromyalgia and chronic pain and, perhaps, myofascial and musculoskeletal pain," as well as " psychiatric [ailments], anxiety and depression, et cetera." He continued: " Obviously, if [the neurologist's] examination and findings are operative, nobody with those findings would be able to work," but that " I don't have enough ...


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