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William R. v. Saul

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

December 20, 2019

WILLIAM R., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Hon. Jeffrey Cummings, United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant William R. (“Claimant”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of Defendant Andrew Saul, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits ("DIBs") and social security income ("SSI") initially on July 8, 2015 and upon reconsideration on September 22, 2015.[1] On March 1, 2017, however, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a written decision finding that Claimant had been disabled since his alleged onset date of July 1, 2013 through his last insured date of March 31, 2018. (R. 15-34). Claimant sought review by the Appeals Council on April 27, 2017. (R. 172). The Council denied his request on March 8, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Claimant appealed the ALJ's decision to federal court on April 20, 2018 and consented to proceed before this Court for all purposes including final judgment. (Dckt. 12). On April 10, 2019, Claimant filed a motion for summary judgment. (Dckt. 25). The Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on July 11, 2019. (Dckt. 35). For the reasons addressed below, Claimant's motion is denied and the Commissioner's motion is granted.[2]

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Evidence From the Hearing

         In his disability application, Claimant alleged that he became disabled from mental illness on September 1, 2014. (R. 173). The Disability Determination and Transmittal letter, however, states that the alleged onset date was May 1, 2014, (R. 99), which is the date the ALJ began with at the January 2017 hearing. Claimant confirmed to the ALJ that he had opposed the May 1, 2014 date but that the SSA field officer who assisted him put it on a form during the application process notwithstanding Claimant's objection. (R. 40). As a result, the ALJ spent most of the hearing considering what the actual date should be and what evidence might support the onset determination.

         The ALJ first considered January 31, 2014. He noted that Claimant's treating psychiatrist Dr. Corinne Belsky had written a letter stating that she began treating Claimant for schizophrenia on that date. (R. 440). The ALJ also took note of the fact that Claimant had told Dr. Belsky that he experienced auditory hallucinations as early as 1991. (R. 440). Claimant asked the ALJ to revise the onset date to January 1, 1991 based on Dr. Belsky's comment but the ALJ refused because Claimant had engaged in substantial gainful activity through 2009. (R. 42-49). The vocational expert ("VE") then alerted the ALJ to an earlier treatment record; notes from the Veterans' Administration ("VA") showed that Claimant began treatment at the Cpt. James Lovell Federal Health Center as early as December 7, 2013. (R. 49). The ALJ agreed that "based on that, I can move [the onset date] back to December 7, 2013." (R. 49-50).

         Claimant then told the ALJ that it was "possible" that he had been treated for mental illness earlier than December 7, 2013, and he and the ALJ engaged in a lengthy - and frequently unclear - discussion on that topic.[3] (R. 57). They addressed three issues. First, the ALJ told Claimant that the SSA's regulations only permitted him to receive benefits for the 12-month period prior to his January 7, 2015 disability application. The ALJ then asked Claimant if he had ever filed a prior application. Claimant stated that he had but the ALJ told him that "it doesn't do you a whole lot of good" because of the 12-month limit on benefits. (R. 43-44). For reasons that are unclear, the ALJ then asked Claimant once again if he had filed an earlier disability application and stated that he "might reopen that" proceeding if it existed. (R. 48). Contrary to his earlier remark, the ALJ suggested that such an application might still be beneficial to Claimant. (R. 48). Despite the fact that Claimant had already told the ALJ he had filed a prior application, the ALJ concluded that he "got the impression you're saying no, you didn't" file one. (R. 48). As discussed below, infra at Sections III(B) and III(C), Plaintiff filed for disability benefits in 2011 as well as in 2015.

         Second, Claimant eventually clarified for the ALJ that he had been treated for mental illness at a VA facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina as early as 2000 or possibly in 2002 or 2003. (R. 54, 61). The ALJ offered to request records from the North Carolina VA facility and raised Claimant's hopes that an earlier onset date might be established. (R. 68, "It sounds like you're entitled to a date a little bit earlier than what . . . you got"). Third, the ALJ then asked Claimant to sign a release form that would allow him to request the North Carolina records. The ALJ placed great emphasis on this issue and warned Claimant multiple times that he would not be able to take action unless Claimant did so. (R. 77, "But I need to have you sign that. If you don't, I'm not going to be able to do anything"). Claimant refused to sign the form, however, and consented to the December 7, 2013 onset date. (R. 77). In his decision, the ALJ attributed Claimant's reluctance to his mental illness by stating that his "paranoia was such that he refused to sign the form granting permission for the records to be released." (R. 19).

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         Applying the five-step sequential analysis that governs disability evaluations, the ALJ found at Step 1 that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his onset date.[4]Contrary to everything that was discussed at the hearing, the ALJ found the onset date to be July 1, 2013 instead of December 7, 2013. (R. 17). The ALJ claimed that he changed the onset date based on medical evidence "discussed below" in the decision. (R. 15). In reality, however, the ALJ did not cite anything in the record that related to the July 1, 2013 date.

         Claimant's severe impairments at Step 2 included bipolar disorder with psychosis and schizophrenia. (R. 17). At Step 3, the ALJ considered whether Claimant's symptoms met or medically equaled the criteria of listing 12.03 (schizophrenic, paranoid and other psychotic disorders). Listing 12.03 requires a claimant to show either that (1) he or she meets the Paragraph C factors set out in the listing, [5] or (2) meets both the Paragraph A and Paragraph B factors. Paragraph A of listing 12.03 requires a documented history of schizophrenia that is accompanied by a history of hallucinations, catatonia, incoherence, or isolation. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.03(A)(1)-(4). The ALJ found that Claimant met this criterion because he had a medically-documented history of delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and thought. (R. 18).

         A claimant meets the criteria of Paragraph B when he or she has marked limitations in the functional areas of (1) understanding, remembering, and applying information; (2) interacting with others; (3) concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace; and (4) adapting or managing oneself. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P., App. 1 at § 12.03(B). The ALJ found that Claimant met this listing because he had marked restrictions in all of these categories. The ALJ therefore determined that Claimant was disabled without moving to Step 4 or Step 5 of the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         C. The Review Process

         On April 27, 2017, Claimant sought review by the Appeals Council of the ALJ's onset date. (R. 172). In support, Claimant submitted a one-page document from the Lake County, Illinois Health Department that had not been provided to the ALJ. The document lists a series of appointments from May 17, 2010 through July 21, 2011 with Beth Fraum M.D., Rihan Morcott M.D., and several other individuals. (R. 10). The Appeals Council denied review and declined to consider the evidence because it did “not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision.” (R. 2).

         Claimant brought this action on April 20, 2018 and alleged in his pro se complaint that the correct onset date for disability was May 17, 2010. (Dckt. 1). Instead of a filing a motion for summary judgment with supporting arguments, however, Claimant re-submitted what he characterized as "the complete full set of documented evidence in [his] case.” (Dckt. 15 at p. 5). The Court struck Claimant's filing as unresponsive; directed him to file a brief that addressed the issues more carefully; and held a hearing on May 14, 2019 so that Claimant could clarify the basis of his claim. A second hearing was held on June 13, 2019 at which both Claimant and the Commissioner's counsel appeared. The Court directed the Commissioner to file ...

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