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Carolyn S. v. Saul

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

January 15, 2020

CAROLYN S., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Jeffrey Cummings, United States Magistrate Judge

         Claimant Carolyn S. (“Claimant”)[1] brings a motion for summary judgment to reverse the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) that denied her application for a period of disability and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 402(e), and 423. The Commissioner has brought a cross-motion for summary judgment seeking to uphold the Social Security Agency's (“SSA”) decision finding that Claimant is not disabled. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). This Court has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 138(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, Claimant's motion for summary judgment [13] is granted and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment [18] is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On August 20, 2015, Claimant filed a disability application alleging a disability onset date of April 14, 2015. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On January 2, 2018, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a written decision denying benefits to Claimant. The Appeals Council denied review on November 17, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.985(d); see also Zurawski v. Halter, 245 F.3d 881, 883 (7th Cir. 2001). Claimant subsequently filed this action in District Court on January 18, 2019.

         B. Medical Evidence[2]

         1. Evidence from Claimant's Treatment History

         Claimant began treatment for bipolar disorder with psychiatrist Dr. Erich DeCastro in 1999. (R. 575). The earliest record entry, however, is an October 7, 2011 treatment note from psychotherapist Dr. Stephan Romm who treated Claimant at Dr. DeCastro's request. Dr. Romm noted that Claimant was “more or less stable” on medications that included Zoloft, Lamictal, and Seroquel but that she could be easily overwhelmed “when there are a lot of distractions in the work environment.” (R. 476). Dr. Romm's treatment notes reflect multiple examples of these behaviors. He noted in December 2011 that Claimant easily became angry with others and could be “socially rude” when she did not get her way. (R. 475). He described her as “very impulsive” and “super sensitive to rejection.” (R. 474).

         These behaviors had not improved by December 2012 when Dr. Romm noted that Claimant “quickly takes offense, speaks in a harsh manner . . . and offends people without realizing it.” (R. 472). Dr. Romm's treatment notes up to the alleged onset date of April 14, 2015 continue to document incidents of acting out, impulsivity, and rapid conversational behavior even though Claimant added lithium to her medications for bipolar disorder. (R. 458, “She wants to work on her problem with impulsively changing topics and jumping around in her conversations. A coworker complained that he couldn't follow her conversation”). Dr. Romm's few notes after the onset date show that Claimant continued to experience difficulties from her bipolar disorder. On October 16, 2015, he remarked that her capacity for functioning around others was “severely limited.” (R. 442).

         Dr. Romm issued a medical opinion for Claimant on October 23, 2015. He noted that Claimant had suffered from bipolar disorder since childhood. Her symptoms included hypomania, depression, and serious impulsiveness that causes her to encounter interpersonal difficulties with co-workers. Dr. Romm stated that Claimant's response to psychotherapy was “poor” and that she “verbally lashes out” at others despite the medications she takes. He noted that she was “easily emotionally insulted” and that her “very impulsive” reaction to perceived slights had caused “yelling” at co-workers, “storming off, ” and “pulling papers from other peoples' hands” at work. (R. 435-38).

         Claimant was also evaluated by Dr. Randy Kettering at the SSA's request on October 19, 2015. He noted that Claimant was first psychiatrically evaluated at age 13 at the Menninger Hospital and that she was also treated by psychiatrists during high school. Dr. Kettering found that Claimant's mood was variable but that she had no delusional ideas, illogical thoughts, or a “looseness of associations.” Dr. Kettering described her speech as “evenly paced.” When asked to name five large cities she named states instead. Claimant also refused to calculate serial sevens and could not perform double-digit additions or subtractions. Claimant's memory permitted her to recall seven numbers forward and four backwards; however, she could not remember any of three random numbers after a five-minute delay. Contrary to every other psychological expert who examined or treated Claimant, Dr. Kettering's diagnosis did not assess any mental disorder. Instead, he stated “R/O [rule out] Bipolar disorder, recurrent” and “R/O [rule out] Personality Disorder.” (R. 430-33).

         The record does not contain treatment notes from treating psychiatrist Dr. DeCastro. However, he issued a bipolar residual functional capacity (“RFC”) report on March 8, 2016. Dr. DeCastro had treated Claimant since July 1999 for bipolar II disorder by providing medication management once every one to two months.[3] Dr. DeCastro noted that Claimant's mental impairment affected her concentration in several ways. Stress triggered irritability and decreased her focus - both of which led Claimant to make inappropriate statements. Claimant also suffers from mood swings that make her more irritable and impatient with her supervisors. That said, Dr. DeCastro did not believe that Claimant would need to be off-task more than 15 percent during a normal work day though she would need to be absent from work one day each month. Dr. DeCastro concluded that Claimant suffered from a moderate restriction in her activities of daily living and marked restrictions in her social functioning and ability to maintain concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 576-77).

         In May 2017, Claimant began treatment for her mental disorder at Counseling Speaks, LLC with Dr. Matt Glowiak after Dr. Romm retired. It was noted on several visits that she “appeared agitated with some tangential speech.” (R. 672-75). A July 12, 2017 treatment note states that she was struggling to focus and “becomes overwhelmed and teary when describing social interactions.” (R. 677). Dr. Glowiak issued a report on August 24, 2017 diagnosing Claimant with bipolar I disorder. He noted that she displayed a “tangential” flight of ideas, was easily distracted, and had limited insight. (R. 670, “Thought content . . . was positive for preoccupations and obsessive thoughts”). Dr. Glowiak concluded that Claimant had a limited ability to function independently and appropriately in a normal employment setting and “likely cannot perform at a consistent, competitive pace in a work setting.” (R. 668-670).

         2. Evidence From the State-Agency Experts

         On November 13, 2015, state-agency psychologist Dr. Ellen Rozenfeld issued her report concerning Claimant. She found that Claimant suffered from an affective disorder that imposed mild restrictions on her daily activities and created moderate restrictions in both her social functioning and in Claimant's ability to maintain concentration. Dr. Rozenfeld concluded that Claimant could have occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors and could tolerate occasional work changes even though her ability to handle stress was reduced. (R. 105).

         3. Evidence From Claimant's Testimony

         Claimant appeared at the September 15, 2017 hearing and described her symptoms to the ALJ. Claimant stated that her bipolar symptoms fluctuate and that her condition goes “up and down.” (R. 53). She also has difficulty with focusing and has been unable to pass her “cashiering quizzes” at the grocery stores she formerly worked at. (R. 54; R. 60, “I have no skills with numbers and calculating”). Medication moderates her symptoms but Claimant continues to be impulsive in her speech. In fact, she was fired from her former part-time job as a cashier after her “not filtered mouth” caused her to speak inappropriately to customers. At the time of the hearing Claimant had again been working as a part-time cashier for three months and had already been reprimanded several times for inappropriate speech. Claimant had also permitted two customers to leave the store without noting that their credit cards had been declined. (R. 47).

         Claimant described several incidents related to her impulsive speech. She became so upset during a phone call with her counselor that the paramedics were called when she threatened to slit her throat. (R. 53). At an earlier job as an x-ray technician, she had “many, many, many write ups” and was suspended after she was “too harsh” with a patient. (R. 61). She was written up at her former cashier job after reprimanding a customer for the amount of celery she bought. (R. 62, “I said how can you buy a stick and I kept saying it to her. I said you're not supposed to do that. That's not the right thing to do.”). Claimant also spends money impulsively. (R. 56).

         C. The ...

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