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Askew v. Berryhill

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

July 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.


          Susan E. Cox Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Patricia Askew (“Plaintiff”) appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying her application for Disabled Widow's Benefits (“DWB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff has filed a brief, which this Court will construe as a motion for summary judgment [dkt. 17], and the Commissioner has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment [dkt. 23]. After reviewing the record, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. The ALJ's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         Plaintiff was born on December 7, 1959. (R. 277.) As a child, she received benefits under Title II on her father's account and benefits under Title XVI. (R. 127). At age thirteen, Plaintiff dropped out of school due to her failure to make academic progress and enrolled in the Arkansas Children's Colony where she was taught homemaking skills, crocheting, and embroidery. (R. 601; 704-705.) She attended the Arkansas Children's Colony until she attainted age eighteen, at which time a friend assisted her in securing independent housing. (Id.) Plaintiff continued to receive benefits under Title II as a disabled adult until she was married in 1991 and her benefits were terminated. (R. 127).[2] Her husband passed away seven years later. (R. 603). She reported that she has lived alone since his death. (Id.).

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed an application for DWB on November 19, 2009, and an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on December 5, 2009, alleging an onset date of November 30, 1977. (R. 254-60.) Her applications were denied at the initial stage and upon reconsideration. (R. 98-101.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on August 18, 2011. (R. 66-97; 149-51.) On September 12, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision granting Plaintiff's application for SSI; however, the ALJ also denied Plaintiff's DWB claim, citing a lack of evidence demonstrating that Plaintiff suffered from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment prior to, or during, her prescribed period for DWB, which ended on August 31, 2005. (R. 102-25.) Upon a timely request for review, the Appeals Council (“AC”) vacated the ALJ's decision on February 19, 2013 with respect to Plaintiff's DWB claim and remanded the case. (R. 126-30; 218.) On remand, the AC instructed the ALJ to: (1) update the record and obtain any additional evidence regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments; (2) consider the third party statement submitted by Plaintiff's former teacher; (3) obtain neuropsychological testing and evaluation from a medical expert to clarify the nature of Plaintiff's impairments, including the issue of whether she meets or equals a listing; (4) further evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments in accordance with the special technique described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a; (5) give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and provide specific references to evidence to support the assessed limitations; and (6) obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert (“VE”) to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Plaintiff's occupational base. (Id.) On April 14, 2014, Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared at another hearing before the same ALJ. (R. 39-65.) Ten days later, on April 24, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision affirming his finding that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to August 31, 2005. (R. 14-38.) The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied review on December 23, 2015, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the agency. (R. 1-6); Herron v. Shalala, 19 F.3d 329, 332 (7th Cir. 1994).)

         II. Medical Evidence

         Prior to 2010, Plaintiff's medical records reveal very little regarding her mental impairments, however on at least one occasion in 2009 it was noted that she suffered from a learning disability and reading disorder. (R. 400.) Other records from the same time period indicate that Plaintiff had a history of obesity. (R. 398; 400; 554.)

         On February 2, 2010, three months after Plaintiff filed her initial application for DWB, she and her sister, Molly Scott, completed separate Function Reports where they each described how Plaintiff's conditions limited her activities. (R. 288-303.) Plaintiff and her sister both expressed that Plaintiff had suffered from a learning disability since birth, but that it had not limited her ability to manage her life. (Id.) In their respective reports, each indicated that Plaintiff could not read or follow written recipe instructions, but retained to ability to independently prepare meals, clean, travel on public transit, and pay bills. (Id.)

         One month later, in March 2010, Plaintiff presented to Dr. Michael E. Stone, Psy.D., for a Mental Status Examination related to her claim for disability benefits. (R. 413-16.) Plaintiff reported that she suffered from a learning disability, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, anemia, concentration difficulties, illiteracy, and stuttering which impaired her ability to obtain and maintain gainful employment. (R. 413.) Dr. Stone noted that Plaintiff could not read and that she had difficultly performing simple calculations. (R. 414-15). Dr. Stone estimated that Plaintiff's intelligence was within the borderline range of intellectual functioning and diagnosed her with adjustment disorder (secondary to learning and medical problems), hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and anemia. (R. 416.)

         On November 12, 2010, Plaintiff presented to Dr. Medeia Gartel, M.D., for a Psychiatric Evaluation. (R. 602-606.) Dr. Gartel noted that Plaintiff had difficultly reading and that it took her several seconds to understand and respond to questions. (R. 603-04.) Based on her examination, Dr. Gartel determined that Plaintiff had a history of learning disorder and possible mental retardation with significant cognitive impairments which required her to seek assistance in many aspects of her life. (R. 605.)

         On May 16, 2013, Plaintiff underwent a Psychological Evaluation performed by Dr. Nicolette Puntini, Ph.D., P.C. (R. 702-15.) Plaintiff reported that she had experienced academic difficulties throughout her education, but she particularly struggled in reading class. (R. 704.) Dr. Puntini administered a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-IV (“WAIS-IV”) which revealed that Plaintiff had a full scale IQ of 54, suggesting that her overall intelligence fell into the “extremely low range.” (R. 710-11.) Dr. Puntini noted that Plaintiff was unable to read simple words such as “in”, “hair”, and “how” and that she was unable spell words such as “on”, “and”, and “him.” (R. 711.) Plaintiff explained that in the past she had relied on her neighbors or her late husband to help her read her mail. (Id.) At a subsequent visit dated June 9, 2013, Dr. Puntini opined that Plaintiff met Listing 12.04 (Affective Disorders) due to her sadness, unhappiness, depression, and frustration, and Listing 12.05 (Intellectual Disorders) because she had demonstrated deficits in “adaptive functioning” prior to age twenty-two and had a valid full scale IQ of 59 or less. (R. 716-720).

         Along with the foregoing evidence, Plaintiff's record also contains an undated letter from Lorraine E. Boone, Plaintiff's former teacher at the Arkansas Children's Colony. (R. 601). In her letter, Ms. Boone indicated that she had she had known Plaintiff for over forty years and that she “wholeheartedly vouch[ed] for [Plaintiff's] personal character.” (Id.) Ms. Boone stated that Plaintiff could “think socially very well” and carry out verbal assignments, despite the fact that her “academic achievements were minimal” and her reading skills were at a first grade level. (Id.) She concluded her letter by stating, “I feel confident in saying that [Plaintiff] is capable of handling most social situation [sic] with thoughtfulness and maturity. I trust [Plaintiff] without reservation.” (Id.)

         III. ...

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