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Lewis v. Colvin

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

August 30, 2016

Dominique Lewis, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Iain D. Johnston, Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Dominique Lewis brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), challenging the denial of social security disability benefits.


         As this Court has previously noted, Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are often required to hear cases involving mentally ill drug addicts. Koelling v. Colvin, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140754, *1-2 (N.D. Ill., Oct. 16, 2015). The ALJs have the difficult task of determining which of these applicants are entitled to benefits and which are not. Id. In denying benefits in this case, the ALJ found that the applicant was not credible. Record evidence exists to support that finding. But the ALJ unfortunately failed to engage in an analysis the Seventh Circuit requires when making that credibility determination in a case like this. Consequently, this Court remands the case, but is not finding that the applicant is disabled. Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1124 (7th Cir. 2014).


         On April 15, 2011, when she was only 30 years old, plaintiff applied for supplemental security income, alleging she was disabled based on her bipolar disorder, depression, and learning disability.

         By her own account, plaintiff has had a troubled and transient life, which a brief biographical overview demonstrates. She alleges that she was molested as a child by family members; she began drinking alcohol at age 14, the year she first became pregnant; she dropped out of school in the eighth grade; she had six children, by three different men, and has never been married to any of them; all six children were taken from her by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) because of personality problems and her drug and alcohol addiction; she attempted suicide multiple times; she has served time in jail for several offenses; she has been unable to hold a job; she has been homeless for almost four years; and she has suffered through abusive relationships and lived in women's shelters. See, e.g., R. 334, 340, 353, 358, 552, 554.

         After filing her application, plaintiff was evaluated in July 2011 by psychologist Kelly Renzi who diagnosed her with major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder and rated her GAF as 50. Later that month, a state agency psychologist, Donna Hudspeth, completed the Psychiatric Review Technique (Ex. 7F) and the Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (Ex. 8F). She found that plaintiff had major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and polysubstance dependence. However, she found that plaintiff only had mild limitations in activities of daily living and social functioning and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace.

         A hearing before the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) was first set for October 25, 2012 in Madison, Wisconsin. Plaintiff's then counsel appeared and told the ALJ that plaintiff had called ten minutes before the hearing to say she would not be appearing. A new hearing was held on February 27, 2013. Plaintiff appeared, although counsel was no longer representing her. She testified that was single and had six children under 18 (ages 17, 15, 13, 12, 8, and 6). She was currently living at a domestic violence shelter in Rockford, where she resided for two weeks. She had last worked clearing tables for about two weeks in September 2012. The job ended because she had trouble getting to the job and got into fights with co-workers. She encountered similar problems in earlier jobs working as a cashier. When asked why she had not sought work since September 2012, plaintiff answered: “I was homeless in a domestic abuse relationship that prevented me from reaching out to family and friends.” R. 38.

         Plaintiff testified that she generally felt overwhelmed: “I feel a sense of hopelessness. Every time I make an attempt to get my life on the right track or try to do positive things and correct my thinking, I get overwhelmed and I'm used to going back to my old ways because my old ways feel so normal and familiar even knowing the consequences.” R. 39. Two of her children were adopted by plaintiff's mother; two others were adopted almost four years ago; and two others were in foster care. She received $200 a month in food stamps and had been homeless for almost four years.

         At the domestic violence center where she was then staying, she had to perform one chore every day, which was sweeping and mopping one room. Plaintiff had problems doing this task consistently, even though failure to complete the work placed her at risk for removal from the facility. Plaintiff was taking medications for bipolar disorder and depression, but they caused drowsiness, overeating, dry mouth, and suicidal thoughts. She claimed to have last used alcohol and a “little bit” of drugs in September 2012. She described the difficulty of getting treatment: “I've been going to meetings. Nobody wanted to take me because every time I try to receive the help for the substance abuse treatment, they'll tell me they can't give me help because I needed mental health treatment and vice versa.” R. 43. Plaintiff had personality conflicts with the women at her shelter because, she believed, they were “out to get [her]” and “want[ed] to steal from [her].” R. 43-44. When she was homeless, she “used to work the street” and “get money from strangers.” R. 44. At the time she thought this behavior was normal, but is now “clean and going a totally different route to have a positive network.” Id.

         After plaintiff testified, a vocational expert then testified that plaintiff could work various jobs, such as industrial cleaner and sandwich maker. Plaintiff asked no questions to the VE. There were no other witnesses.

         On April 16, 2013, the ALJ issued his opinion finding plaintiff not disabled. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairments of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, personality disorder, and polysubstance dependence but found that plaintiff did not meet a Section 12 mental health listing. In evaluating the paragraph B criteria, the ALJ found that plaintiff had mild limitations in activities of daily living. The ALJ relied on function report completed by plaintiff (Ex. 3E) that, according to the ALJ, showed that plaintiff was able “to live independently, attend to personal care tasks, prepare daily meals, count change, utilize public transportation, and shop for three to four hours at a time.” R. 14. The ALJ noted that plaintiff's mother also completed a report (Ex. 10E), but the ALJ found it was inconsistent with plaintiff's “ability to seek out and obtain mental health care (even if she was routinely noncompliant with treatment recommendations), seek out and obtain brief part-time employment, and her testimony at the hearing in which she noted that she is required to attend to a number of daily activities in her current living situation at a domestic violence shelter.” Id. As for social functioning, the ALJ found that plaintiff had “no more than a moderate limitation” because she was able “to socialize daily with others” and “attend medical appointments, AA meetings, and counseling sessions, ” and because no treating source noted any problems on mental status examinations. R. 15. As for concentration, persistence, or pace (the third criteria), the ALJ found that plaintiff had a moderate limitation because she “engage[d] in goal-oriented activities [] such as seeking out and obtaining health care and securing resources for food and housing assistance.” Id.

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work but should be limited to “simple, routine, repetitive tasks”; limited to “work involving only occasional changes in the work setting”; limited to “only brief and superficial interaction with coworkers”; and precluded from public interaction. R. 16. The ALJ found that plaintiff lacked credibility because she repeatedly failed to follow through with treatment recommendations, often missing appointments and even showing up for one appointment high on crack; she lied about using alcohol and drugs; and several doctors noted on mental status examinations that she had no problems. The ALJ gave “great weight” ...

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