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Park v. Colvin

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

December 15, 2016

Timothy Park, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Iain D. Johnston, Magistrate Judge

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


         On March 16, 2010, plaintiff filed disability applications alleging he was disabled because of back problems, which are not at issue in this appeal, and bipolar disorder. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) who found that plaintiff was disabled from January 2010 through March 2011, but not thereafter. Plaintiff appealed administratively, and the Appeals Council remanded the case for several reasons.[1]

         On remand, a new ALJ was appointed and then held a hearing. At the start of the hearing, the ALJ reminded plaintiff and his counsel that, even though the first ALJ had found plaintiff disabled for a 15-month period, the remand order provided that-in the ALJ's words-the “whole case is up for grabs.” R. 11. Plaintiff's counsel acknowledged this risk.

         Plaintiff, who was 52 years old, testified that he had only worked once in the last couple of years, which was a brief period as a package handler for UPS. He used to be an alcoholic but had been sober since 1997, a turn-around he credited to Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”). He was living with his parents in Rockford. He was married once, but was divorced in 1997. His daughter was 20 years old and in college, and plaintiff had a “distant” relationship with her. R. 13.

         The key issue in this appeal is plaintiff's alleged periods of decompensation when his symptoms worsened. Plaintiff testified that he had good days and bad days. If he had energy, he would go to “out to an AA meeting or something like that” and then would do things like reading and spending time on the computer. R. 18. But if he were “really depressed, ” then he would not do “much of anything” unless “prodded by” his parents. Id. He would then do things like reading and would “stumble through day” without the “initiative to do much of anything.” R. 19. The bad days happened “only about four or five days” every month or two. R. 19, 22.

         The ALJ called Dr. Michael Carney, a psychologist, to testify as an impartial medical expert. He noted that plaintiff had been diagnosed “pretty much consistently throughout the record” as having bipolar II disorder. R. 14. He found that plaintiff had only mild limitations in activities of daily living and social functioning, noting that plaintiff did various activities such as driving, using a computer, reading, cooking, attending church, and going to AA meetings. He acknowledged that plaintiff procrastinated and had “an ongoing concern about lack of motivation and planning, ” but did not find that these problems were severe. R. 16.

         On April 14, 2014, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled for any period of time. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “bipolar disorder, personality disorder, and history of alcoholism in sustained remission.” R. 92. The ALJ found that plaintiff did not meet any of the Section 12 mental health listings, and that he had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of medium work. The ALJ's rationales are discussed below.


         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. 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 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). 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).

         Plaintiff raises three arguments for a remand. Each relates to a different opinion provided by his therapist, Jennifer Crotchett, and his psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony D'Souza, who were “coordinating closely over [his] care” at Rosecrance. Dkt. #11 at 9. As will be seen, all three opinions are offered for the same basic point about periods of decompensation.

         Before addressing each argument individually, a broader point should be noted. In his opening brief, plaintiff offers only skeletal arguments. They are conclusory, with minimal citations to the record or discussion of the facts, and little explanation of the legal tests or case law. The most detailed discussion of the specific evidence is in the introduction and fact section, which take up six and a half pages of the 10-page brief. However, later in the brief, plaintiff never marshals these facts and connects them to the relevant legal tests. Compounding these problems, plaintiff did not to file a reply brief despite being given ample time to do so. Accordingly, the Government's counter-arguments are left unaddressed. For these reasons, this Court arguably could deny these arguments summarily on the ground that they are undeveloped. See Nelson v. Napolitano, 657 F.3d 586, 590 (7th Cir. 2011) (“Neither the district court nor this court are obliged to research and construct legal arguments for parties, especially when they are represented by counsel”); Baker v. Colvin, 2015 WL 719604, *4 (N.D. ...

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