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Pontarelli v. Colvin

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

July 7, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Donald Pontarelli ("Plaintiff" or "Pontarelli") seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for benefits under the Social Security Act, and Pontarelli filed a Motion for Summary Judgment that seeks to reverse the Commissioner's decision. The Commissioner filed a cross-motion. For the reasons stated below, both motions are granted in part and denied in part.

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 capacity 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 Facts

A. Medical History

Pontarelli suffers from rapid-cycling bipolar disorder and, as of 2011, is recovering from polysubstance abuse. He was hospitalized at the Reed Mental Health Clinic for nearly three weeks in September 2009. (R. 297). A treatment note from February 2010 states that he had experienced multiple earlier admissions to hospital and clinical settings for depression and suicide attempts. Pontarelli was hospitalized in February 2010 when he tried to kill himself by exposure to carbon dioxide. (R. 255, 265). The ALJ found that Plaintiff was again hospitalized at Alexian Brothers Hospital in July 2010.[1] (R. 16, 255-56).

The majority of Pontarelli's subsequent treatment took place at the Kenneth Young Center, where he was treated by psychiatrists Dr. Iveta Boyanchek and, after July 2010, by Dr. Jerry Gibbons. Both doctors treated Pontarelli with a variety of anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic, and anti-seizure medications used to treat bipolar disorder and anxiety. These included at various times Neurontin, Klonopin, Zyprexa, Lamictal, lithium carbonate, and Ativan. Plaintiff ordinarily took combinations of most of these medications each day. Dr. Gibbons and Dr. Boyanchek noted on several occasions that Pontarelli's symptoms stabilized on medication. (R. 319, 322, 328, 352, 361, 392, 403, 405, 457, 459). Some ups and downs did take place, such as the July 2010 suicide attempt when Plaintiff overdosed on lithium. (R. 332). However, Pontarelli told his treating physicians on numerous occasions that he was eager to find work. He stated to Dr. Boyanchek that he believed he could work 16 hours a week, and the psychiatrist released him to work part time. (R. 297-98).

B. Hearing Testimony

Pontarelli testified at a hearing held before ALJ Dadabo on July 3, 2012. He stated that he was eager to work after he became sober in 2011. He spent up to two hours each day on his computer searching for jobs. Plaintiff was concerned about his ability to maintain work. He had been fired after only three days from a job delivering pizzas because he could not concentrate. He was also terminated from a temporary job for the same reasons. Pontarelli stated that his medications make him sleepy, and he fell asleep on a few prior jobs. (R. 30-32, 39, 42). Plaintiff claimed that his limitations stem from bipolar disorder and the medications that he takes to treat his symptoms.

C. Medical Opinions

Dr. Ellen Rozenfeld issued Psychiatric Review Technique ("PRT") evaluation of Plaintiff on April 8, 2011. She found that Pontarelli suffered from bipolar disorder and a substance addiction disorder. Dr. Rozenfeld determined that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in his activities of daily living and had moderate limitations in social functioning and concentration. One or two episodes of decompensation were noted. Her mental RFC found no significant limitations in most areas, but some moderate restrictions were noted in Pontarelli's ability to understand and carry out detailed instructions, ability to interact with the public, and to respond appropriately to changes in the workplace. (R. 408-25).

Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist issued his own mental RFC on July 11, 2012. Dr. Gibbons also found that Plaintiff suffered from bipolar disorder and opiod dependence. His findings were more restrictive than Dr. Rozenfeld's. Dr. Gibbons concluded that Pontarelli suffered from marked limitations in several areas such as the ability to understand and remember detailed instructions, the capacity to work in close proximity with others, and the ability to complete a normal workday without psychological interruptions. Moderate restrictions were found in his capacity to sustain an ordinary routine without ...

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