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O'Neill v. Colvin

United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Western Division

December 12, 2014

PEADAR O’NEILL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


Magistrate Judge Iain D. Johnston

Peadar O’Neill brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking reversal or remand of the decision denying him disability insurance benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the case is remanded.


On February 24, 2011, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing to review the Social Security Administration’s denial of Mr. O’Neill’s request for benefits. R. 169-93. At the time of the hearing, Mr. O’Neill was forty-three years old, six-feet, two-inches tall, and weighed 250 pounds. R. 172, 326.

In October 2006, Mr. O’Neill went to the emergency room complaining of severe back pain. R. 557. The attending physician diagnosed the pain as musculoskeletal and prescribed Mr. O’Neill a fentanyl pump to alleviate his pain. R. 555. Examinations in November 2009 revealed distal weakness, bilateral edema and loss of certain reflexes to Mr. O’Neill’s lower extremities. R. 1055, 1067. In 2010, a CT myelogram revealed multilevel mild disc disease from L1-2 through L5-S1. R. 1655.

In December 2008, Mr. O’Neill went to the emergency room for psychiatric treatment because his chronic back pain and other medical issues caused his depression to worsen to the point that he attempted suicide. R. 688, 860. He was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and alcohol abuse and was assigned a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of 30. R. 738. Soon after seeking treatment, Mr. O’Neill attempted suicide again. R. 863.

In May 2009, Mr. O’Neill began treating with a psychologist, Dr. Amy Jakobsen, on a weekly basis to address his mental health and substance abuse issues. R. 885, 947, 952-56. In July 2009, Dr. Jakobsen submitted a “Medical Source Statement” on the severity of Mr. O’Neill’s mental impairment (R. 885-91), and assigned him a GAF score of 45 (R. 885). Based on her sessions with Mr. O’Neill, Dr. Jakobsen found that his mental impairments produced confusion, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering, and social isolation. R. 885. She reported that Mr. O’Neill’s substance dependence was in full remission. R. 886. In relation to Mr. O’Neill’s ability to do unskilled work, Dr. Jakobsen found that his mental impairments resulted in his being unable to meet competitive standards for remembering work-like procedures, completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms, and dealing with normal work stress. R. 887. Mr. O’Neill was seriously limited with regard to maintaining attention for a two-hour period, maintaining regular attendance, sustaining an ordinary routine without supervision, making simple work-related decision, performing at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number of rest periods, receiving instruction and criticism, and carrying out detailed instructions. Id. Dr. Jakobsen also reported three episodes of decompensation with the last year, noting that Mr. O’Neill had suicide attempts in December 2008 and January 2009. R. 889.

In October 2009, Mr. O’Neill was admitted for emergency psychiatric treatment due to suicidal ideation. R. 1027. After his release in November 2009, he began treating with a psychiatrist, Dr. Samar Mahmood (R. 1338-39). In September 2010, Drs. Jakobsen and Mahmood issued a joint statement finding that Mr. O’Neill was “unable to cope with long-term demands of sustaining employment due to symptoms of depression.” R. 1419. They diagnosed Mr. O’Neill with major depressive disorder and alcohol dependence in early full remission. Id. The doctors determined that because Mr. O’Neill had been sober for approximately two years, with two brief relapses, his symptoms of depression and related impairment appeared to be independent of his substance abuse. Id. They also stated that Mr. O’Neill attended sessions consistently and was compliant with treatment recommendations. Id.

In November 2010, Dr. Mahmood submitted a “Medical Source Statement” and assigned Mr. O’Neill a GAF of 40. R. 1503. Based on Mr. O’Neill’s mental impairments, Dr. Mahmood found him unable to meet competitive standards with regard to performing unskilled work at a consistent pace and dealing with normal work stress. R. 1505. Mr. Mahmood also found Mr. O’Neill seriously limited in his ability to perform numerous other work-related tasks. Id.

On April 14, 2011, the ALJ issued her ruling finding that Mr. O’Neill was not disabled. R.146-61. The ALJ found that Mr. O’Neill had multiple severe impairments, including gout, status post-fusion, lumbar degenerative disc disease, hypercoagulation disorder secondary to factor V Leiden, seizure/syncope episodes, neuropathy secondary to alcohol abuse, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and history of alcohol abuse. R. 148. The ALJ found Mr. O’Neill’s impairments did not meet or medically equal a listing impairment. R. 150. The ALJ then concluded Mr. O’Neill had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work subject to the following limitations: lift no more than ten pounds; stand or walk for no more than two hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for no more than six hours in an eight-hour workday with the option of standing for one or two minutes after sitting for one hour; use a cane as needed; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally climb stairs or ramps; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; avoid concentrated exposure to work hazards; limited to work that is simple, unskilled, routine, and repetitive three to four-step tasks that requires occasional interaction with supervisors and co-workers, and no interaction with the public. R. 154-55. Based on the vocational expert’s testimony, the ALJ determined that this RFC did not allow Mr. O’Neill to perform his past relevant work, but it did allow him to perform other jobs that existed in the national economy. R. 159-60.


A reviewing court may enter judgment “affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the [Commissioner], with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner’s factual findings are conclusive. Id. Substantial evidence exists if there is enough evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to determine that the decision’s conclusion is supportable. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 399-401 (1971). Accordingly, the reviewing court cannot displace the decision by reconsidering facts or evidence, or by making independent credibility determinations. Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). However, the Seventh Circuit has emphasized that review is not merely a rubber stamp. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002) (a “mere scintilla” is not substantial evidence). If the Commissioner’s decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion, then the court must remand the matter. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009). Moreover, a reviewing court must conduct a critical review of the evidence before affirming the Commissioner’s decision. Eichstadt v. Astrue, 534 F.3d 663, 665 (7th Cir. 2008). Indeed, even when adequate record evidence exists to support the Commissioner’s decision, the decision will not be affirmed if the Commissioner does not build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion. Berger v. Astrue, 516 F.3d 539, 544 (7th Cir. 2008).


Mr. O’Neill argues that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed or remanded for several reasons. Specifically, Mr. O’Neill argues that the ALJ: 1) improperly weighed the medical opinion evidence of his treating psychologist and psychiatrist from July 2009, September 2010, and November 2010; 2) improperly assessed his RFC; 3) failed to consider his obesity; and 4) improperly assessed his credibility. After reviewing these ...

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