United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTHEW F. KENNELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Merle seeks review of an administrative law judge's
decision that he is not disabled under the Social Security
Act and therefore not entitled to supplemental security
income benefits. Merle argues that the ALJ mischaracterized
the medical record, improperly discounted the opinions of his
treating mental health professionals, improperly discounted
his credibility, and failed to properly evaluate the
vocational expert's testimony. He has appealed the
decision and has moved for summary judgment. The Commissioner
of Social Security has cross-moved for summary judgment,
asking to uphold the decision. For the reasons stated below,
the Court grants Merle's motion for summary judgment,
denies the Commissioner's motion, and remands the case
for further consideration.
applied for child's insurance benefits and supplemental
security income benefits on November 28, 2012. He stated that
he suffered from severe attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and a
history of polysubstance abuse. Merle initially alleged a
disability onset date of May 1, 2005. He later withdrew his
claim for child's insurance benefits and amended his
onset date to November 28, 2012.
Social Security Administration (SSA) denied Merle's
application on March 1, 2013 and again upon reconsideration
on September 5, 2013. Merle then filed a written request for
a hearing. On October 14, 2014, Merle appeared with his
attorney at a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Merle; Dr. Mark Oberlander, an expert requested by the SSA to
review the records of Merle's psychiatric treatment; and
Margaret Ford, a vocational expert, testified at the hearing.
On January 30, 2015, the ALJ issued his decision, finding
Merle not disabled.
decision, the ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation
process established by the SSA to determine whether an
individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a). At step one, the ALJ found that Merle had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 28,
2012. At step two, the ALJ found that Merle had severe
impairments of ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and
a history of polysubstance abuse/alcoholism.
three, the ALJ determined that the severity of Merle's
impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of
the listed impairments found in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1. The listed impairments the ALJ considered were
12.02 (organic mental disorders), 12.04 (affective
disorders), 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders), and 12.09
(substance addiction disorders).
first considered whether Merle's impairments satisfied
the "paragraph B" criteria of the listed
impairments. Paragraph B provides a set of functional
limitations related to the impairments under 12.02, 12.04,
12.06, and 12.09. To satisfy paragraph B, the claimant's
impairments must meet the requisite degree of limitation in
one or more of the following categories: activities of daily
living; maintaining social functioning; maintaining
concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of
decompensation. The ALJ also evaluated whether Merle's
impairments satisfied the "paragraph C" criteria
under 12.02, 12.04, and 12.06. The additional functional
limitations under paragraph C may be considered, but only if
the paragraph B criteria are not met.
concluded that neither the paragraph B nor the paragraph C
criteria were satisfied. To reach this conclusion, the ALJ
reviewed the opinion of Dr. Oberlander as well as the
opinions of Dr. Richard Hamersma and Dr. David Voss, state
agency medical consultants who reviewed records of
Merle's treatment and provided an assessment of his
residual functional capacity (RFC). The ALJ stated that these
experts were "unanimous in their firm opinions that
[Merle] does not have mental health problems of listing level
severity." R. 22. The ALJ specifically adopted the
opinion of Dr. Oberlander "because he provided an
extremely thorough analysis of [Merle's] mental health
status that in all respects is completely consistent with the
clinical information in the Merle case file." R. 22.
the effects of Merle's mental health issues, the ALJ
found Merle had "moderate restriction" in
activities of daily living and social functioning because,
among other activities, he could perform his own hygiene,
prepare meals, use a computer, attend classes at a community
college, and tolerate occasional interaction with the public.
R. 22. The ALJ also stated that Merle had "moderate
difficulties" maintaining concentration, persistence,
and pace. R. 23. Finally, the ALJ found that Merle had
experienced "no episodes of decompensation, which have
been of extended duration." R. 23.
four, the ALJ evaluated Merle's RFC to perform physical
and mental work activities. He concluded that Merle had the
"[RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional
levels" but with certain non-exertional limitations. R.
23. In making this determination, the ALJ examined the
opinions of Merle's treating mental health professionals,
Dr. Suzanne Streicker, Dr. Elizabeth Brumfield, and Dr. Dale
Gody. Dr. Streicker was Merle's psychotherapist since
2009. The ALJ cited purported inconsistencies between Dr.
Streicker's formal correspondence and her treatment
notes. For example, he stated that Dr. Streicker noted in two
undated letters that Merle "had problems attending his
college classes, " "was anxious around people,
" and "was still unable to function" despite
moderate improvement in his anxiety and depression due to his
medications. R. 26. The ALJ then compared these statements
with Dr. Streicker's treatment notes, in which she stated
Merle "was more productive, " "school was ok
and fun, " and "his computer classes were going
great." R. 26. The ALJ also stated that Dr.
Streicker's opinion of Merle's marked limitations in
the RFC questionnaire that she had completed was contradicted
by Merle's testimony about his participation in
recreational activities and his interactions with his parents
and friends. R. 30. As a result, the ALJ determined to
"completely discount" Dr. Streicker's report,
finding it to be "without persuasive credibility."
similarly discounted the opinion of Dr. Elizabeth Brumfield,
Merle's treating psychiatrist since 2008. He stated that
in her RFC questionnaire and formal reports, Dr. Brumfield
noted Merle's extreme social anxiety, sleep problems, a
depressed mood, and inability to work due to overwhelming
stress. R. 28. The ALJ stated, however, that Dr. Brumfield
had contradicted this assessment in her treatment notes,
which indicated that Merle had "a good mood, "
"was not psychotic, " and that "anxiety [was]
not a big problem." R. 28. The ALJ found Dr.
Brumfield's assessment "unsound and not supported by
the medical record, or even her own treatment notes." R.
also cited the opinion of Dr. Dale Gody, Merle's
psychotherapist from 2008 to 2010. He noted that Dr. Gody
reported Merle's "significant psychiatric disorder
during the time he was in treatment with her." R. 27.
The ALJ stated, however, that because Dr. Gody had not seen
Merle since 2010, "[t]his treatment gap made it
impossible for [Dr. Gody] to attest to his current
status." R. 27. The ALJ did not specify what weight he
assigned to Dr. Gody's opinion.
further discussed the weight he gave to the opinions of the
non-examining experts. He stated that Dr. Oberlander had
convinced him that "a drug free and sober Mr. Merle can
understand, remember and carry out simple job
instructions" but "cannot tolerate stress emanating
from numerically strict production demands that must be
accomplish with rigid time-sensitive boundaries." R. 24.
According to the ALJ, Dr. Oberlander also noted
inconsistencies between the reports and the respective
treatment notes of Dr. Streicker and Dr. Brumfield. R. 33.
Therefore, he adopted and gave "significant weight"
to Dr. Oberlander's opinion. R. 33. The ALJ stated that