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Laura R. v. Saul

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

January 10, 2020

LAURA R., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Laura R. seeks to overturn the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and Plaintiff filed a brief explaining why the Commissioner's decision should be reversed or the case remanded. The Commissioner responded with a competing motion for summary judgment. After careful review of the record, the Court agrees with Plaintiff that the case must be remanded for further proceedings and so denies the Commissioner's motion.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on January 22, 2015, alleging that she became disabled on November 28, 2014 due to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. (R. 158, 162, 181). Born in 1968, Plaintiff was 46 years old at the time of the applications, making her a younger individual. (R. 162). She completed the 10th grade and lives in an apartment with her boyfriend. (R. 182, 520). From 1999 to January 2012, Plaintiff worked as an order entry production manager at a factory. (R. 182). She then worked briefly as an assistant plant manager for a finishing company from February to October 2012 before taking a position as a cashier/stocker at a department store in November 2012. (Id.). Plaintiff held the cashier job until November 28, 2014 when she quit due to her mental condition. (R. 181-82). She has not held any additional jobs since the alleged disability onset date.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications initially on May 20, 2015, and again upon reconsideration on October 8, 2015. (R. 38-86). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing and appeared before administrative law judge Luke Woltering (the “ALJ”) on March 8, 2017. (R. 515). The ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and from vocational expert Kari Seaver (the “VE”). (R. 516-41). On May 24, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's bipolar disorder with additional diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and rule out personality disorder are severe impairments, but they do not meet or equal any Listed impairment. (R. 20-22). After reviewing the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled because she has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with several nonexertional limitations. Specifically, Plaintiff can understand, remember, carry out, and sustain performance of simple, routine work instructions. She also needs to work in a low pressure and low stress work environment “defined as one requiring only occasional and simple work-related decision making, occasional changes in the work setting, no work at a production rate pace, such as assembly line work, only occasional and superficial interaction with coworkers and supervisors, no more than brief and incidental contact with the public, and no loud noise.” (R. 22). The ALJ accepted the VE's testimony that a person with Plaintiff's background and RFC can work as a hand packer, assembler, or sorter, and so found Plaintiff not disabled. (R. 22-27). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner and, therefore, reviewable by this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005).

         In support of her request for reversal or remand, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ: (1) failed to adequately consider her mental functioning on “bad days”; (2) improperly evaluated her statements regarding the limiting effects of her bipolar symptoms; and (3) erred in assessing the VE's testimony. For the reasons discussed below, this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the case must be remanded for further consideration of the limiting effects of her bipolar disorder.


         A. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court will “reverse the findings of the Commissioner only if they are not supported by substantial evidence or if they are the result of an error of law.” Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003). In making this determination, the Court considers “the entire administrative record but do[es] not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). When the Commissioner's decision “'lacks evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review,' a remand is required.” Hopgood ex rel. L.G. v. Astrue, 578 F.3d 696, 698 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002)).

         B. Five-Step Inquiry

         To recover DIB or SSI, a claimant must establish that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Shewmake v. Colvin, No. 15 C 6734, 2016 WL 6948380, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 28, 2016). A claimant is disabled if she is unable to perform “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 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In determining whether a claimant suffers from a disability, an ALJ must conduct a standard five-step inquiry, which involves analyzing: “(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 his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.” Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F.3d 642, 646 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). If the claimant meets her burden of proof at steps one through four, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Moore v. Astrue, 851 F.Supp.2d 1131, 1139-40 (N.D. Ill. 2012).

         C. Analysis

         1. Evaluation of Plaintiff's Bipolar Disorder

         Plaintiff argues that the case must be reversed or remanded because the ALJ failed to consider the nature and extent of her functioning on bad mental health days. The ALJ found that when Plaintiff “is not having a mental health crisis, ” she can perform “a range of work” within the stated RFC. (R. 25). The phrase “mental health crisis” appears to be a reference to Plaintiff's two psychiatric hospitalizations. On November 14, 2014, Plaintiff went to the MacNeal Hospital Emergency Department complaining of suicidal thoughts. (R. 358, 362-400). She exhibited anxiety, depression, psychomotor retardation, a blunt affect, and social withdrawal, as well as auditory and visual hallucinations. (R. 358, 382). Doctors admitted Plaintiff to the hospital and prescribed a variety of medications, including Celexa, lithium, phenobarbital, prazosin, and Seroquel. (R. 358). Following her discharge on November 18, 2014, Plaintiff completed an intake questionnaire for outpatient treatment with ...

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