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Merle v. Berryhill

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

June 15, 2017

JEREMY MERLE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Jeremy 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.


         Merle 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.

         The 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.

         In his 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.

         At step 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).

         The ALJ 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.

         The ALJ 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.

         Addressing 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.

         At step 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." R. 30.

         The ALJ 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. 28.

         The ALJ 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.

         The ALJ 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 Dr. ...

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