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Santore v. Astrue

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

April 28, 2015

MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JOHN Z. LEE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Joseph F. Santore seeks judicial review of a decision by Defendant Michael J. Astrue, former Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying his application for disability insurance benefits. Santore filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to reverse the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denying him benefits or, alternatively, to remand for further proceedings. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court grants Santore's motion for summary judgment in part and remands for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

Procedural History

On November 16, 2007, Santore applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging that he had become disabled as of August 7, 2007. Administrative Record ("Admin. R.") 145. Santore's claims were denied, and reconsideration was likewise denied. Id. 89-101. Santore then requested a hearing before an ALJ, who also denied his claims. Id. 102. The ALJ found that, while Santore had at least one medically determinable "severe" impairment or its equivalent, his physical and mental impairments did not satisfy the criteria in the Listing of Impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. 17-18. Furthermore, the ALJ found that Santore had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of unskilled, light work and therefore was not "under a disability" or "disabled" for purposes of receiving disability insurance benefits. Id. 18-22. The Appeals Council denied Santore's request for review. Id. 1-3. Santore now seeks review by this Court.

Factual Background

Joseph Santore, born August 25, 1955, was fifty-three years old on the date of the hearing. Id. 14, 148. Santore has an eighth-grade education, id. 193, and worked as a printer from October 1988 through August 2007. Id. 175. He left his job on August 7, 2007, and as explained in the "Disability Report" section of his November 16, 2007, application for Disability Insurance Benefits, he "[could not] do [his] job as a printer anymore" because "[t]he chemicals and lifting make it very difficult." Id. 187. He further explained that he "missed a lot of work because of pain, depression, fatigue, and a bad back, " and also complained of breathing and heart problems. Id. Prior to leaving his job in August 2007, Santore received medical care for both physical and mental ailments.

I. Medical Evidence

The record contains numerous medical evaluations describing Santore's physical and mental condition. All of them suggest at least some degree of limitation, but the most recent evaluations-those conducted by Santore's treating physicians-paint the most severe picture, essentially stating that Santore is disabled and unable to work.

Santore's physical symptoms included breathing difficulties and pain in his back and extremities. In January 2007, Santore required emergency room care for acute cardiovascular symptoms, specifically bradycardia. Id. 286. On the same day, he signed a hospital record form noting his chief complaint and mechanism of injury as a panic attack. Id. 299. In June 2007, Dr. Helen Ho gave a diagnostic impression of pulmonary emphysema with scarring, noting that Santore's lungs were clear. Id. 413.

As for Santore's back pain, in May 2007, Dr. John Ciemens made a diagnostic impression of "[m]ild diffusely bulging discs" and "[s]uggestion of small annular tear." Id. 417. The next year, in January 2008, Dr. Sandra Hare examined Santore, who again complained of chronic back pain. Dr. Hare concluded that Santore was able to bear his own weight, walk fifty feet without difficulty, and grasp with both hands. Id. 360. Her clinical findings detailed a possible left lumbar radiculopathy, probable emphysema, chronic bronchitis, recent acute bronchitis, a history of polysubstance abuse, intravenous drug abuse, and a history of depression and panic. Id.

The following month, Dr. Bharati Jhaveri, a state agency reviewing physician, evaluated Santore's physical condition. Id. 380-87. Dr. Jhaveri concluded that Santore was capable of lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling up to fifty pounds occasionally, and sitting, standing, or walking for six hours in a normal eight-hour workday. Id. 381. He noted that Santore complained of emphysema, fatigue, depression, headaches, and chronic back problems, and stated that Santore's "allegations are supported by the objective evidence in file." Id. 387.

Several months later, in August 2008, Santore received a more limiting diagnosis from Dr. Hillary Neybert, who assessed Santore's functional capacity with respect to his claimed physical ailments. Id. 479. She found that Santore could lift or carry up to ten pounds occasionally and sit or walk for about two hours in a normal eight-hour workday, but that Santore was "unable to work." Id. 479-85.

Santore also consulted with various physicians regarding his claimed mental impairment. In April 2007, he met with Dr. Venus Paxton of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois for a psychiatric evaluation. Id. 318-20. Dr. Paxton diagnosed major depressive disorder, recurrent and severe without psychotic features, and noted a depressed mood with constricted affect, decreased speech, and fair insight and judgment. Id. 319.

Santore received two additional consultations in early 2008. Dr. Henry Fine examined Santore in January 2008, observing that Santore's "[p]osture and gait were normal, " and diagnosed him with major depression recurrent with anxiety, mild psychotic features, polysubstance abuse in remission, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Id. 349. Dr. Fine noted that Santore had decreased focus, concentration and comprehension; recent memory deficit and judgment problems; a depressed and fixed affect; slowed speech; psychomotor retardation; and disorientation at times. Id. 349. In February 2008, Dr. Terry Travis, the state agency reviewing psychiatrist, found that Santore was "cognitively intact, " could "learn simple instructions" and was "able to do 1-2 step tasks that can be learned within a month in a routine work setting." Id. 378. Dr. Travis assessed Santore's "ability to complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods" as "[m]oderately [l]imited." Id. 377.

Later findings were more severe. In February 2009, when Dr. Victoria Erhardt assessed Santore's functional capacity with respect to his alleged mental impairments, she noted signs and symptoms of poor memory, appetite disturbance with weight change, sleep disturbance, mood disturbance, anhedonia or pervasive loss of interest, hypoactive sad mood, psychomotor retardation, slow nonspontaneous speech, difficulty thinking or concentrating, passive suicide ideation, social withdrawal or isolation, poor attention, and decreased energy. Id. 487. Santore's prognosis was "poor, " id. 488, and Dr. Erhardt indicated "continual" "[e]pisodes of deterioration or decompensation in work or work-like settings that cause the individual to withdraw from that situation or to experience exacerbation ...

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