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Adrian Z. v. Berryhill

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

August 2, 2019

ADRIAN Z. Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMDORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHARON JOHNSON COLEMAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Adrian Z.'s motion to reverse the Commissioner of Social Security's decision to deny Adrian's request for disability insurance benefits. Adrian seeks reversal of the Administrative Law Judge's determination that he is not disabled and entitled to benefits. For the reasons stated herein, the Court affirms the agency's decision.

         Background

         Adrian was born in 1982 and was 30 years old at the onset date. Adrian filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on June 13, 2013, alleging disability beginning May 31, 2013. These claims were initially denied on July 14, 2014, and reconsideration was denied on April 24, 2015. Adrian subsequently requested a hearing, which was held on February 25, 2016, before ALJ Kevin Plunkett. Adrian was present and represented by Brianne Stricoff. Also present were Sara Gibson, an impartial vocational expert, and Marcus Ingram, Adrian's therapist. On April 5, 2016, Plunkett issued his decision denying Adrian's application. On April 14, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Adrian's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final determination of the Commissioner. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), Adrian filed the complaint for judicial review now before this Court.

         Legal Standard

         This Court will reverse the Commissioner's finding only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is the result of a legal error. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351, 361-62 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). Although this Court reviews the record as a whole, it cannot “substitute its own judgment for that of the SSA by reevaluating the facts, or reweighing the evidence to decide whether a claimant is in fact disabled.” Jens v. Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003); Cass v. Shalala, 8 F.3d 552, 555 (7th Cir. 1993).

         In rendering a decision, the ALJ must build a logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion. Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 941 (7th Cir. 2002). “The ALJ need not, however, provide a ‘complete written evaluation of every piece of testimony and evidence.'” Hanyes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 308 (7th Cir. 1995)). The ALJ “may not select and discuss only that evidence that favors his ultimate conclusion, ” Diaz, 55 F.3d at 308, but “must confront the evidence that does not support his conclusion and explain why it was rejected.” Indoranto v. Barnhart, 374 F.3d 470, 474 (7th Cir. 2004).

         Discussion

         A person is disabled under the Social Security Act if he “is unable 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(a)(3)(C)(I). The Social Security Administration has set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a). This evaluation considers “(1) whether the claimant is currently employed, (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment, (3) whether the claimant's impairment is one that the Commissioner considers conclusively disabling, (4) if the claimant does not have a conclusively disabling impairment, whether he can perform past relevant work, and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176 (7th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. 404.1520.

         Adrian makes three arguments for reversal of the ALJ's determination that he was not disabled. First, Adrian argues that the ALJ's decision to give discounted weight to the testimony of Ingram and Dr. Valluripalli was not supported by substantial evidence. Second, Adrian contends that the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment was not supported by substantial evidence. Third, Adrian contends that the ALJ's evaluation of his subjective symptoms was legally insufficient. The Court takes each argument in turn.

         Adrian contends that the ALJ erred by failing to give controlling weight to Dr. Valluripalli and Ingram's testimony about Adrian's diagnoses and resulting limitations. A treating physician's opinion regarding the nature and severity of a medical condition is entitled to controlling weight if supported by the medical findings and consistent with substantial evidence in the record. Gudgel v. Barnhart, 345 F.3d 467, 470 (7th Cir. 2003); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). When an ALJ declines to give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion, he must provide a sound explanation for the rejection. Jelinek v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 805, 811 (7th Cir. 2010). Nonetheless, courts uphold “all but the most patently erroneous reasons for discounting a treating physician's assessment.” Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1177 (7th Cir. 2001).

         Here, the ALJ had before him the opinions of three treating psychiatrists, Dr. Carreira, Dr. Puszkarski, and Dr. Valluripalli. Doctors Carreira and Puszkarski treated Adrian from May 2013 through March 2015, and consistently concluded that Adrian had only mild to moderate mental symptoms or functioning. Dr. Valluripalli first treated Adrian in September 2015 and appears to have seen him only a handful of times before submitting a one-page letter stating his opinions as to Adrian's mental health. That letter, however, was not specific and appears to have drawn many of its conclusions from Adrian's medical history and self-reports rather than a course of diagnosis and treatment.

         Adrian argues that the ALJ erred in giving little weight to Dr. Valluripalli's opinion that Adrian's mental disorders resulted from a childhood traumatic brain injury or subsequent seizures. Dr. Valluripalli, however, offered no medical evidence to support his speculative theory, and thus his opinion on this matter was not entitled to controlling weight. Neither does the record evidence that Adrian now cites lend significant support to Dr. Valluripalli's opinion. The record contains medical records from Lutheran General Hospital describing a 1993 or 1994 operation performed on Adrian after a motor vehicle accident (R. 444-445). However, that surgery record contains no references to a traumatic brain injury or seizures. The record also contains 1990 test results showing non-specific slowing in the front of Adrian's brain and learning disabilities, but those results contain no indication of causation. (R. 395).

         Adrian further appears to contend that the ALJ should have considered Dr. Valluripalli's letter to the extent it identified conditions and symptoms which would logically impair functionality. The ALJ did consider Dr. Valluripalli's representations as to Adrian's mental health when establishing Adrian's mental health history, despite the fact that the symptoms described appear to have been predominantly established through self-report rather than established diagnostic methods. Dr. Valluripalli's letter failed to offer any opinion about Adrian's ability to work or propose any work-related restrictions, and the ALJ was therefore well within his rights to conclude that it did not identify specific functional limitations. In light of Dr. ...


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