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Negron v. Colvin

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

March 14, 2017

JAVIER NEGRON, Claimant,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Jeffrey T. Gilbert, Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Javier Negron ("Claimant") seeks review of the final decision of Respondent Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner"), denying Claimant's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") and for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Local Rule 73.1, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings, including entry of final judgment. [ECF No. 6.] The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. [ECF Nos. 12, 22.] For the following reasons, Claimant's motion is granted and the Commissioner's motion is denied. The decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 10, 2012, Claimant filed applications for DIB and SIS, alleging a disability onset date of date of November 1, 2011, due to hepatitis, high blood pressure, enlarged gallbladder, intestinal swelling, depression, hearing voices, anxiety, panic attacks, and sleeping problems. (R. 150-63, 195.) Claimant subsequently amended his applications to allege an onset date of August 1, 2011. (R. 164-65.) The claims were denied initially on February 24, 2012 and upon reconsideration on May 30, 2012. (R. 88-96, 100-07.) On July 30, 2012, Claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ"). (R. 108.) Claimant appeared unrepresented at a hearing on August 9, 2013. (R. 28-37.) The ALJ informed Claimant of his right to counsel and adjourned the hearing in order to allow Claimant time to obtain counsel. Id. A second hearing was then held on December 4, 2013. (R. 38-87.) At that hearing, Claimant, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Id. Claimant's mother, Claimant's former wife, a medical expert (the "ME"), and a vocational expert (the "VE") also appeared and testified. Id.

         On February 13, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's applications for DIB and SSI and finding that he was not disabled under the Act. (R. 12-21.) The opinion followed the required five-step sequential evaluation process and also conducted a Drug Addiction and Alcoholism ("DAA") analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of August 1, 2011. (R. 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the severe impairments of depression, alcoholic hepatitis, high blood pressure, and substance addiction disorder. (R. 15.) At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments, including the substance abuse disorder, meet Listings 12.04 and 12.09. (R. 15-16.) The ALJ concluded that with substance use, the "paragraph B" criteria were met. (R. 15.) Specifically, the ALJ determined that Claimant had moderate restrictions of daily living, marked difficulties in social functioning, marked difficulties in concentration, persistence or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. Id. The ALJ found that even absent substance use, Claimant's remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform basic work activities and therefore, the Claimant would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. (R. 16.) The ALJ concluded that in the absence of his substance use, Claimant would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). (R. 16-17.) In evaluating the paragraph B criteria in the absence of substance use, the ALJ found Claimant had mild restrictions in activities of daily living, mild difficulties in social functioning, moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. (R, 16.)

         Before step four, the ALJ found that absent substance use, Claimant would have the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work except that he would be precluded from performing complex skilled work activity. (R. 17.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step four that Claimant could perform his past relevant work as an industrial cleaner in the absence of substance use. (R. 20.) The ALJ further found that Claimant's substance use disorder was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because the Claimant would not be disabled if he stopped using substances. Id. Based on this determination, the ALJ found that Claimant was not disabled under the Act. (R. 20-21.) The Social Security Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-6.) See Nelms v. Astrue, 553 F.3d 1093, 1097 (7th Cir. 2009). Claimant now seeks review in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A decision by an ALJ becomes the Commissioner's final decision if the Appeals Council denies a request for review. Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-107 (2000). Under such circumstances, the district court reviews the decision of the ALJ. Id. Judicial review is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in reaching his decision. Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1097.

         Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A "mere scintilla" of evidence is not enough. Scott v. Barnhart, 297 F.3d 589, 593 (7th Cir. 2002). Even when there is adequate evidence in the record to support the decision, however, the findings will not be upheld if the ALJ 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). If the Commissioner's decision lacks evidentiary support or adequate discussion of the issues, it cannot stand. Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 562 (7th Cir. 2009).

         The "findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Though the standard of review is deferential, 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). It may not, however, "displace the ALJ's judgment by reconsidering facts or evidence." Elder v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 408, 413 (7th Cir. 2008). Thus, judicial review is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings. Nelms, 553 F.3d at 1097. The reviewing court may enter a 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Claimant asserts that the ALJ made four errors. First, Claimant argues that the ALJ did not properly evaluate his treating psychiatrist's opinions. Second, he contends that the ALJ's credibility determination is flawed. Third, Claimant claims that the ALJ's DAA materiality determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Fourth, he argues that the ALJ's RFC assessment does not adequately account for Claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace. For the reasons discussed below, the Court agrees that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinions of the treating psychiatrist and the materiality of Claimant's substance use. The Court further finds that the ALJ erred in assessing Claimant's RFC by failing to account for his difficulties in concentration, persistence, and pace. Because these errors require reversal and remand, the Court need not address whether the ALJ erred in his credibility determination.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Properly Evaluate the Opinions Of The Treating Psychiatrist

         On June 19, 2012, Claimant began psychiatric treatment with Dr. Syed Anwar at Ecker Center for Mental Health. (R. 492.) Dr. Anwar noted that Claimant had recently been hospitalized because of his heroin addiction. Id. At the time of his hospitalization, Claimant had been hearing voices. Id. Dr. Anwar stated that once Claimant was detoxed, he was doing better. Id. Dr. Anwar indicated that Claimant was taking too much Ativan (sedative) and had been given Seroquel (antipsychotic) in the hospital. Id. Dr. Anwar prescribed Seroquel XR 150 mg at night and directed Claimant to continue Celexa (antidepressant) 20 mg a day and Ativan 2 mg at night and to discontinue Risperdal (antipsychotic). Id. Dr. Anwar instructed Claimant to return in a couple of months. Id.

         Claimant returned to see Dr. Anwar on October 16, 2012 with complaints of depression and anxiety. (R. 495.) Dr. Anwar noted that Claimant had been doing fair and denied having any suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Id. Claimant indicated that he stopped taking Seroquel because it made him feel worse. Id. Claimant reported that he was not taking any medications. Id. Dr. Anwar prescribed Zyprexa (antipsychotic) 5 mg and Prozac (antidepressant) 20 mg a day and directed Claimant to return in three months. Id. On November 15, 2012, Claimant was hospitalized due to escalating depression with suicidal ideation, including thoughts of jumping in front of a train. (R. 497.)

         Claimant was seen for a follow-up with Dr. Anwar on February 12, 2013. (R. 499.) Claimant reported that he had been doing well and that his mediations had been helping. Id. Claimant also said the voices were under control and he had been sleeping and eating well. Id. Dr. Anwar continued Zyprexa 5 mg at bedtime and told Claimant to return in three months. Id. Claimant was next seen by Dr. Anwar on May 21, 2013. (R. 500.) Claimant stated that he had been doing well with no side effects from his medications. Id. Claimant reported no paranoia and no hallucinations. Id. Dr. Anwar prescribed Geodon (antipsychotic) 80 mg twice a day and Trazodone (antidepressant and sedative) 150 mg 2 at night and instructed Claimant to return in three months. Id.

         In less than a month, on June 18, 2013, Claimant returned to Dr. Anwar for a follow-up appointment. (R. 501.) Claimant reported that he stopped taking Geodon because it was making him restless and anxious. Id. Claimant was hearing some voices again. Id. Claimant talked about depression, but Dr. Anwar noted that he thought Claimant seemed to be experiencing more hallucinations. Id. Claimant also reported that he had been drinking on and off. Id. Dr. Anwar wrote: "Alcohol is a major issue, and I told him to stop drinking." Id. Dr. Anwar prescribed Trazodone 150 mg 2 at night and Risperdal 2 mg at bedtime and directed Claimant to stop his other medications. Id.

         On July 28, 2013, Claimant attempted to jump in front of a train and was hospitalized. (R. 621.) Claimant reported being angry about everything and hearing command hallucinations telling him to kill himself Id. He was diagnosed with psychosis not otherwise specified and alcohol abuse. (R. 577.) Claimant was discharged per his request on August 5, 2013. (R. 580.) At a follow-up appointment with Dr. Anwar on September 10, 2013, Claimant reported doing fair and that his mood had been fairly stable. (R. 625.) He was not suicidal, homicidal or psychotic. Id. Claimant was sleeping with the Trazodone but felt the ...


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