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Sharonova v. Colvin

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

September 22, 2016

TATIANA SHARONOVA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          SIDNEY I. SCHENKIER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tatiana Sharonova ("plaintiff or "Ms. Sharonova") has filed a motion for summary judgment seeking reversal or remand of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") (doc. # 17: pl'.s Mot. for Sum. J.). The Commissioner has filed her own motion seeking affirmance of the decision denying benefits (doc. # 24: Def.'s Mot. for Sum. J.). For the following reasons, Ms. Sharonova's motion for remand is granted and the Commissioner's motion is denied.

         I.

         On November 28, 2011, Plaintiff filed a claim for DIB, claiming that she became disabled on August 15, 2010 because of depression, migraine headaches, anxiety, and insomnia (R. 143, 163). Her claim was denied initially on February 23, 2012 and on appeal on July 9, 2012 (R. 79-80). Ms. Sharonova, represented by counsel, participated in a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on July 11, 2013; a medical expert ("ME") and vocational expert ("VE") also testified (R. 29). On February 28, 2014, ALJ Sylke Merchan issued an opinion finding that plaintiff was not disabled (R. 12-23). The Appeals Council upheld the ALJ's determination, making it the final opinion of the Commission (R. 1-3). See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; Shauger v. Astrue, 675 F.3d 690, 695 (7th Cir. 2012).

         II.

         Ms. Sharonova was born on August 28, 1956; she was almost 54 years old on her alleged disability onset date (R. 143). Her date last insured is December 31, 2014 (R. 79), and so to be eligible for benefits, she must demonstrate that she became disabled prior to that date. Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 369 (7th Cir. 2013). The medical record is voluminous, representing extensive visits by plaintiff to a number of doctors for treatment of headaches, depression, and back pain.

         In her opinion, the ALJ followed the familiar five-step process for determining disability, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a). She found that Ms. Sharonova's severe impairments were major depressive disorder, anxiety, and migraine headaches, but that none of these impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment (R. 14, 15). The ALJ set Ms. Sharonova's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as the ability to perform "a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the non-exertional limitations to avoid concentrated exposure to noise and vibrations; only simple, routine, repetitive tasks; no fast-paced production requirements; only simple work-related decision making; few if any changes in work setting; no public contact; and only occasional contact with supervisors and co-workers (R. 17). At Step Four, the ALJ found that Ms. Sharonova was unable to perform her past relevant work because her past work as a real estate agent was semi-skilled and plaintiffs current RFC was for unskilled work. At Step Five, the ALJ found that Ms. Sharonova was closely approaching advanced age but that she was not disabled according to the Medical-Vocational Rules ("the Grid"), regardless of whether or not she had transferable skills, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (R. 22). Given this analysis, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that plaintiff could perform (Id.).

         "We will review the ALJ's decision deferentially, and will affirm if it is supported by substantial evidence." Decker v. Colvin, No. 13 C 1732, 2014 WL 6612886 at *9 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 18, 2014). Substantial evidence is "relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Alevras v. Colvin, No. 13 C 8409, 2015 WL 2149480 at *4 (NX). Ill. May 6, 2015) (Schenkier, J.). The court will not reweigh evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ. Decker, 2014 WL 6612886 at *9. In rendering a decision, the ALJ "must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion, but he need not provide a complete written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence." Id., quoting Schmidt v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2005).

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ made five errors in finding that she is not disabled. She contends the ALJ: (1) failed to properly weigh the opinion of her treating psychologist; (2) selectively cited evidence to support her conclusions regarding plaintiffs migraine headaches; (3) failed to explain how plaintiffs physical impairments resulted in no work-related limitations; (4) erred in finding that there are a significant number of jobs plaintiff can perform; and (5) failed to resolve a conflict between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") (PI. Mot. for Sum. J. at 1). We find that the ALJ erred by inadequately supporting her decision to give little weight to the medical opinion of Ms. Sharonova's treating psychologist, Olga Green, Psy.D, that Ms. Sharonova's mental impairments prevented her from engaging in full-time work (R. 20). On that basis, we grant plaintiffs motion.

         A.

         An ALJ must give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion if the opinion is both supported by "medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, " and is "not inconsistent" with substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). When an ALJ decides to give a treating physician less than controlling weight, he or she must consider six criteria in deciding how much weight to afford a medical opinion: (1) the nature and duration of the examining relationship, (2) the length and extent of the treatment relationship, (3) the extent to which medical evidence supports the opinion, (4) the degree to which the opinion is consistent with the entire record, (5) the doctor's specialization, if applicable, and (6) other factors which validate or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)-(d)(6). If the ALJ decides not to give controlling weight to a treater's opinion, he or she must use these factors to minimally articulate sound reasons for that decision. Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 842 (7th Cir. 2007), 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c).

         The parties do not dispute that Dr. Green was plaintiffs treating psychologist. Plaintiff met with Dr. Green one to two times per week for therapy sessions to treat her depression beginning in February 2011 and continuing at least until the hearing in July 2013 (R. 309, 51). In addition to seeing Ms. Sharonova for individual therapy, Dr. Green administered a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale ("WISC-IV") and a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory ("MMPI-2") test on Ms. Sharonova over the course of several days in September and October 2011; Dr. Green also completed a psychiatric report for the Department of Disability Services on February 15, 2012 ("DDS Report") and a Mental Impairment Questionnaire and RFC on June 21, 2013 ("Mental RFC") (R. 309-15, 453-55). In the DDS Report, Dr. Green opined that Ms. Sharonova's depression would cause her to be unable to concentrate at work, result in frequent crying spells, and make her unable to handle even the slightest stressors (R. 309). She would also have serious limitations on her ability to initiate, sustain or complete tasks, and would tend to become overwhelmed (R. 311). In the Mental RFC, Dr. Green opined, via check boxes, that Ms. Sharonova had "poor/none" mental ability to perform fifteen out of sixteen tasks associated with unskilled work, [2] and wrote that she was "unable to manage stress appropriately, unable to sustain attention and concentration, [and suffered from] fatigue and easy distractibility" (R. 454).

         As an initial matter, we note that after deciding not to give Dr. Green's opinion controlling weight, the ALJ did not apply the Section 404.1527 factors when analyzing what weight to give it; this deficiency alone warrants remand. Scott v. Astrue, 647 F.3d 734, 740 (7th Cir. 2011). This is particularly the case here, where an analysis of the factors would have likely weighed in favor of giving at least some credit to Dr. Green's opinion: she was a mental health specialist, she treated plaintiff regularly - and frequently - over the course of several years, and she saw plaintiff both in a therapeutic setting and also to administer and then analyze psychological tests. Id.

         The ALJ justified her decision to give Dr. Green's opinion little weight on the ground that it was inconsistent with her own records and with the ME's opinion. First, the ALJ found Dr. Green's opinion in the Mental RFC that Ms. Sharonova could not perform fifteen out of sixteen unskilled tasks, and was thus effectively unable to hold a job, to be inconsistent with Dr. Green's own medical records. Specifically, the ALJ mentions "records" that indicate "relevant speech, logical thought process, no delusions, and no preoccupied thought" (R. 20). Second, the ALJ noted that Dr. Green repeatedly assessed Ms. Sharonova as having a GAF score of 50-55, which ...


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