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Parson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

May 18, 2017

MARIA F. PARSON, Plaintiff,



         Now before the Court are the Plaintiff, Maria Parson's, Motion for Summary Judgment (D. 10)[1] and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance (D. 14). Both parties have provided supporting Memoranda thereto. (D. 11, 15). For the reasons set forth, infra, this Court REVERSES the Commissioner's Decision, GRANTS Parson's Motion for Summary Judgment (D. 10), DENIES the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Affirmance (D. 14), and REMANDS for further proceedings consistent with this Order and Opinion.[2]


         On June 5, 2012, Parson filed applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) alleging disability beginning on April 7, 2012. Her claims for benefits were denied initially on August 17, 2012, and upon reconsideration on February 16, 2013. On March 25, 2013, Parson filed a request for a hearing on her application for Social Security benefits. Parson appeared at the hearing before the Honorable David W. Thompson (ALJ) on July 2, 2014, via video. She was represented by an attorney. Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Parson's claim on November 21, 2014. The Appeals Council denied Parson's request for review on April 21, 2016, making the ALJ's Decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Parson filed the instant civil action, seeking review of the ALJ's Decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c) on May 31, 2016.


         At the time Parson applied for benefits, she was 27 years old. She was living in an apartment with her mother and eight year old son in Rock Island, Illinois. Parson has a high school education and completed one year of college courses. She has not worked since June of 2008. On the various SSA forms she submitted, Parson indicated that she suffers from epilepsy.

         At the hearing before the ALJ, Parson testified that her epileptic seizures occur approximately three times a month. She said her last seizure was about 10 days prior to the hearing. Parson stated that each seizure lasts anywhere from 15-30 minutes, with lingering after effects that last approximately the same amount of time. Afterwards, she asserts that she is back to her normal self. (D. 5 at pg. 58).

         Parson's epilepsy is largely controlled by medication, when she takes it as directed. At the time of the hearing, she was on several medications and had been so for approximately one year. Parson testified that the medications were effective and gave her no negative side effects. She said she had been to the emergency room six times for seizures in 2014. Parson also spent nine months in an inpatient mental health facility, getting out in May 2014-roughly two months prior to the hearing. She indicated that she struggles with depression as a result of her seizures, but did not provide much detail on how the two conditions are connected.

         Parson said Kirk Witherspoon, Ph.d., a licensed forensic and clinical psychologist, diagnosed her with schizoaffective disorder. She testified that her psychiatric problems and seizures make her tired and unable to work. Parson estimated that she would miss work approximately eight times a month due to tiredness, and she could not do any of her past jobs as a result of her condition.

         Vocational Expert, Alfred Walker, also testified at Parson's hearing. The ALJ and Parson's counsel agreed that there was not enough evidence to establish any past relevant work history for Parson. Id. at pg. 68. In answering questions from the ALJ, Walker opined that an individual of Parson's age, experience, and education, could find jobs in the economy with the following restrictions: (1) at most, occasional use of ladders no more than six feet tall; (2) no use of ropes; (3) no use of scaffolds; (4) avoiding concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust and gases; (5) avoiding even moderate exposure to unprotected heights and unprotected moving machinery; and (6) no operating motorized vehicles. Walker said that, even if the same individual had periods of symptom exacerbation where they had moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and/or pace, limiting them to jobs that do not require complex or detailed work (those capable of being learned in 30 days or less), it would have no effect on the number of jobs available.

         Walker provided the ALJ with samples of occupations that fall into this category including medium, light, and sedentary jobs. He also testified to the relevant statistics on their availability, both nationally and regionally. His list was a representative sample, not an exhaustive one. Walker stated that if an employee were to miss four or more days of work per month-or anything above eight to ten absences per year due to sickness-they would be precluded from competitive employment. He also said that if an employee were 85% or less productive on the job, that would prevent them from maintaining competitive employment. Walker stated that his testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and/or his professional and personal experience.

         In closing, Parson's counsel admitted there were some discrepancies between Parson's past intellectual performance and the more current language used by medical personnel indicating she was intellectually disabled. Parson had graduated from high school and briefly attended college, which was not indicative of someone with her then-current assessed intellectual acuity. As a result, the ALJ ordered a post-hearing psychological evaluation by Witherspoon. Id. at pp. 73-74.


         In his Decision, the ALJ determined that Parson had the severe impairments of a history or seizure activity, schizoaffective disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, asthma, and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). (D. 5 at pg. 17). The ALJ crafted the following Residual Functional Capacity for her:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: occasional climbing ladders up to 6 feet tall; no climbing ladders over 6 feet tall, and no climbing ropes or scaffolds; must avoid concentrated exposure to odors, fumes, dusts, and gases; and must avoid even moderate exposure to unprotected height and unprotected moving machinery; and must not operate motor vehicles; and, due to all of the individual's mental impairments and symptoms combined, the individual may, during times of symptoms [sic] exacerbations, have moderate limitations in concentration, persistence and/or pace when attempting complex or detailed tasks, so the individual is limited to jobs that do not require complex or detailed job processes, and little in the way of change in job process from day to day, so they can be learned in 30 days or fewer, and jobs with multi-step, self-evident tasks easily resumed after momentary distraction.

Id. at pg. 22. In reaching that finding, the ALJ recounted Parson's testimony at the hearing regarding her condition. Following protocol, he determined there was a medical impairment reasonably expected to produce her symptoms. The ALJ ultimately concluded that, in “[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).” Id. at pg. 31. Before reaching this conclusion, the ALJ engaged in a lengthy analysis of the evidence pertaining to both Parson's seizures and her schizoaffective disorder.

         In the ALJ's review of Parson's history of seizure activity, he noted that “there is evidence that the claimant has not been entirely compliant in taking prescribed medications, which suggests that the symptoms may not have been as limiting as the claimant has alleged in connection with this application.” Id. at pg. 23. According to the medical records, Parson's seizures were characterized by medical staff as “'under good control as long as she takes her medications.'” Id. The ALJ also cited multiple instances where Parson admittedly or apodictically was not taking her seizure medication before having a seizure. She was outright dishonest about it at times.

         As for Parson's schizoaffective disorder, before engaging in a similarly detailed review of the relevant medical records, the ALJ concluded that “the record also reveals that the treatment has been generally successful in controlling those symptoms.” Id. at pg. 25. He noted Witherspoon's diagnosis of Parson as having “'moderate to severe, ' ‘depressive type' schizoaffective disorder.” Id. at pg. 26. Notably, the ALJ highlighted the fact that Parson's condition on the day she was admitted for inpatient services, and to be assessed for fitness to stand trial for criminal charges, stood in stark contrast to her condition the very next day. Initially, she “presented as disheveled with poor hygiene and grooming, mumbled incoherently at times, had a constricted effect, and frequently did not answer questions[.]” Id. However, the ALJ further found that “treatment notes documented the claimant as remarkably different the following day, recording her as cooperative, sociable, neat/clean, speaking at a normal pace, having goal-directed/logical thought, an affect in the ‘neutral' and/or/to the ‘normal ...

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