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Johnson v. Berryhill

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

June 2, 2017

JERRY L. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          M. David Weisman United States Magistrate Judge.

         Jerry L. Johnson brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying his application for supplemental security income benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on January 19, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2001. (R. 272.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially on February 16, 2012, and on reconsideration on June 7, 2012. (R. 113-14.) An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on plaintiff's application on April 22, 2013. (See R. 80-112.) On May 30, 2013, the ALJ denied plaintiff's application. (See R. 118-29.)

         On January 28, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ to: (1) “obtain additional evidence concerning plaintiff's schizoaffective disorder, including the Veterans Affairs Disability Rating determination”; and (2) “further evaluate [plaintiff's] mental impairments in accordance with the special technique described in 20 CFR 404.1520a”; (3) “obtain evidence[, if necessary, ] from a psychiatric or psychological medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of [plaintiff's] impairments for the period prior to [his] date last insured of March 31, 2005”; (4) “[g]ive further consideration to [plaintiff's] maximum residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue and provide rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitations”; and (5) “[i]f warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on [plaintiff's] occupational base.” (R. 136-37.)

         The ALJ held a second hearing on July 15, 2014, and on October 15, 2014, she again denied plaintiff's application. (See R. 17-35, 45-79.) The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review (R. 1-4), leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner, reviewable by this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Villano v. Astrue, 556 F.3d 558, 561-62 (7th Cir. 2009).


         The Court reviews the ALJ's decision deferentially, affirming if it is supported by “substantial evidence in the record, ” i.e., “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” White v. Sullivan, 965 F.2d 133, 136 (7th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “Although this standard is generous, it is not entirely uncritical, ” and the case must be remanded if the “decision lacks evidentiary support.” Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted).

         Under the Social Security Act, disability is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The regulations prescribe a five-part sequential test for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The Commissioner must consider whether: (1) the claimant has performed any substantial gainful activity during the period for which she claims disability; (2) the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) the claimant's impairment meets or equals any listed impairment; (4) the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant is able to perform any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.; Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 885 (7th Cir. 2001). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Zurawski, 245 F.3d at 886. If that burden is met, at step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that the claimant is capable of performing work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2).

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of January 1, 2001 through his last insured date of March 31, 2005. (R. 20.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the severe impairment of bipolar disorder. (Id.) At step three, however, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. 21.) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to “perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, ” except that he “cannot perform work involving detailed or complex instructions or tasks” and can only perform work that “involves occasional changes in the workplace setting[, ] no public interaction[, ] . . . occasional supervisor interaction, ” and “can work in close proximity to coworkers, but not on joint or shared tasks.” (R. 22-23.) At step five, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work, but that there are jobs in the national economy that he can perform. (R. 33.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 34.)

         In reaching this determination, the ALJ gave “very little weight” to the opinions rendered by plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Polsby:

Dr. Polsby provided a statement to claimant's representative on March 26, 2012, seven years after the date last insured. Dr. Polsby affirmed that she had cared for the claimant since October 2000. He had bipolar disorder with a volatile temper. He was unable to cope with ordinary situations . . . and was not capable of substantial gainful activity due to his psychiatric illness. Dr. Polsby provided this statement again on January 14, 2013 . . . . [, and] again on September 3, 2013, adding that she did not believe the claimant could complete an academic curriculum and . . . that he experienced episodes of mania, depression and auditory hallucinations. A month later, Dr. Polsby expanded her letter with unsupported statements regarding episodes of mania or depression, need for help with activities of daily living, inability to work with others and recurrent paranoia. Dr. Polsby concluded that it was not safe for the claimant to attempt to work, as he would likely decompensate risking injury to himself or others.

(R. 30) (footnote omitted) (citations omitted). The ALJ discounted these opinions because:

[T]hey [are] fairly conclusory[, ] [were] rendered more than a decade after the alleged onset date . . . [and] are belied by voluminous treatment notes that fail to demonstrate any episode of “volatile temper, ” violence, need of assistance with activities of daily living, decompensation, or inability to cope with ordinary situations. No episodes of mania or depression are noted during the relevant period nor are any auditory hallucinations. To the contrary, auditory hallucinations are denied. Rather, numerous instances of interaction with others are described without any notation of any volatile behavior . . . . The only recent instance where the claimant is described as angry and emotional concerned a visit with his general medical doctor regarding his diabetes. This incident did not occur until 2012, 11 years after the alleged onset date. Prior to that, the claimant's condition was noted to have been aggravated after he was fired from the post office and had stopped taking his medication for 7 months. Immediate improvement was seen once the medications were restarted. In 2007, he is noted to be more irritable since his diabetes diagnosis (well after the ...

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