Clifford W. v. Berryhill

Decision Date05 April 2019
Docket NumberNo. 17 CV 4850,17 CV 4850
PartiesCLIFFORD W., Plaintiff, v. NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois

Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cummings


Plaintiff Clifford W. ("Claimant") filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to reverse or remand the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying his claim for Child's Disability Benefits ("CDB"). The Commissioner has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment asking the Court to uphold the Commissioner's final decision. For the reasons set forth below, Claimant's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 14) is granted insofar as it requests remand for further proceedings, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 25) is denied. The Commissioner's final decision is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

A. Procedural History

Claimant applied for CDB on July 30, 2013, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2000 due to anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive compulsivedisorder, and attention deficit disorder/"over focus" issues. (R. 51-52, 60, 80, 248.) The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Claimant's application initially on February 10, 2014, and upon reconsideration on October 1, 2014. (R. 60, 71, 76-80, 83-86.) Claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was scheduled for September 14, 2015 at 11:15 a.m. (R. 87, 136.) Claimant acknowledged being notified of the hearing and indicated that he would attend. (R. 164.)

But Claimant did not appear for the September 2015 hearing (although his attorney did). (R. 43-50.) The ALJ continued the hearing, but she emphasized that the continuance was a "one-time deal": if Claimant did not show up for the next hearing, she would hold it without him. (R. 47-50.) The hearing was continued and rescheduled to January 7, 2016 at 2:15 p.m. (R. 177.) Claimant acknowledged being notified of the rescheduled hearing and again indicated that he would attend. (R. 175.)

Claimant did not show up for the January 2016 hearing either. (R. 29-33.) Claimant's attorney requested a continuance, but the ALJ denied his request. (R. 29, 31, 34.) The ALJ then proceeded in Claimant's absence, hearing testimony from a vocational expert ("VE") and allowing Claimant's attorney to offer closing comments. (R. 34-42.)

On February 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Claimant's CDB application. (R. 10-28.) The Appeals Council denied review on April 25, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-5); Haynes v. Barnhart, 416 F.3d 621, 626 (7th Cir. 2005). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

B. Relevant Medical Evidence
1. Treating Sources

Claimant began seeing Paul Harris, M.D., in June 2003 for therapy and medication management related to his depression and anxiety. (R. 256-57, 336-39.) The records from Dr. Harris's first visit with Claimant noted a GAF2 score of 50, and records from subsequent visits repeated this score. (R. 309, 312, 316, 322, 330, 334, 338.) After a half dozen visits, Claimant quit seeing Dr. Harris in October 2003 so that he could see a psychiatrist closer to home. (R. 308-17, 320-23, 328-39.)

In early- to mid-2012, Claimant began seeing Tucker Wildes, a licensed clinical social worker, for therapy and individual counseling. (See, e.g., R. 350, 441-50, 546, 752, 754.) Ms. Wildes referred Claimant to Mark Amdur, M.D., for psychiatric care, which consisted of medication management and evaluation regarding Claimant's anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. (R. 252, 345, 549-50, 554.) In June 2012, Claimant saw Dr. Amdur for a psychiatric evaluation. (R. 342-45.) Upon evaluation, Dr. Amdur diagnosed Claimant with "markedly severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and associated body dysmorphic disorder." (R. 345.) Dr. Amdur opined that Claimant's "[c]ompulsions and rituals are very time consuming" and his "[w]ork performance would be markedly slowed by trips to a mirror and by handwashing." (Id.) Dr. Amdur also believed that Claimant would be unable to both "maintain adequate work attendance" and "tolerate work stresses," and that Claimant would "have difficulty relating to coworkers and supervisors because of hiscircumstantial speech." (Id.) It appears that Claimant saw Dr. Amdur again in August 2012, and then once a year after that. (See R. 562 (record of Aug. 2012 visit), R. 741-42 (record of Aug. 2013 visit), R. 656 (noting that Claimant was "only required to see Dr. Amdur annually" and indicating a visit scheduled with Dr. Amdur in October 2014)).

From mid-2012 through late 2015, Claimant received therapy and counseling from Ms. Wildes. (See, e.g., R. 546-50, 552-617, 619-50, 656, 662, 665, 668, 671, 678-79, 684-85, 697-98, 702-03, 707-28, 730-32, 734-40, 743-46, 749-52.) In December 2015, Ms. Wildes completed a "Report by Case Manager or Therapist." (R. 752-54.) Ms. Wildes opined that Claimant suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder: specifically, he is always anxious and obsessively thinks when he anticipates leaving his home and encountering other people and situations. (R. 752.) This anxiety, in turn, prevents Claimant from concentrating, keeping track of time, and leaving in a timely manner even for activities he enjoys. (Id.) Per Ms. Wildes, it is still difficult for Claimant to get to his hockey games on time, and he usually arrives late even though he has been trying to correct this pattern for over three years. (Id.) Ms. Wildes further opined that Claimant's obsessive compulsive disorder markedly restricts his daily activities, socialization, and ability to sustain concentration and attention. (R. 752-53.)

2. State Agency Consultants

In January 2014, state agency consultant Michael Schneider, Ph.D., reviewed Claimant's medical records at the SSA's initial stage of review. (R. 51-58.) Later that year, state agency consultant Tyrone Hollerauer, Psy.D., reviewed Claimant's medical records at the SSA's reconsideration stage of review. (R. 61-70.) Drs. Schneider and Hollerauer both opined that prior to turning 22 years old, Claimant experiencedmoderate restriction in his activities of daily living and moderate difficulties in maintaining both social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 54-57, 65, 67-68.) Both consultants also concluded that during the relevant time, Claimant "was mentally capable of working in a setting that allowed him to work in isolation from others." (R. 57, 68.)

C. The Vocational Expert Testimony

A Vocational Expert ("VE") testified at the January 2016 hearing. (R. 34-39.) The ALJ asked the VE to consider a hypothetical individual who, although having no exertional limitations, had the following non-exertional limitations, which resulted from moderate restrictions in activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace: no public interaction; occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers; and low stress work, which the ALJ defined as occasional changes in the workplace setting and simple decision-making. (R. 35-36.) The VE testified that such an individual could work as an offbearer, machine feeder, fastener, or a folder. (R. 36-37.) The VE also testified that to be an employable, an individual would have to be on-task approximately 85 percent of the time and could not have more than 11 unscheduled absences in a year (less than one per month). (R. 38-39.)

A. Standard of Review

This Court will affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and is free from legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Steele v. Barnhart, 290 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla of evidence; it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support aconclusion." Diaz v. Chater, 55 F.3d 300, 305 (7th Cir. 1995) (citations and quotations omitted). Although this Court must consider the entire administrative record, it will "not 'reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility, or substitute [its] own judgment for that of the'" ALJ. Lopez ex rel. Lopez v. Barnhart, 336 F.3d 535, 539 (7th Cir. 2003), quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000). This Court will "conduct a 'critical review of the evidence'" and will not let the ALJ's "decision stand 'if it lacks evidentiary support or an adequate discussion of the issues.'" Id., quoting Steele, 290 F.3d at 940. Additionally, although the ALJ "is not required to address every piece of evidence," she "must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [her] conclusion." Clifford, 227 F.3d at 872. The ALJ must "sufficiently articulate [her] assessment of the evidence to 'assure [the Court] that the ALJ considered the important evidence . . . [and to enable the Court] to trace the path of the ALJ's reasoning.'" Carlson v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 180, 181 (7th Cir. 1993), quoting Stephens v. Heckler, 766 F.2d 284, 287 (7th Cir. 1985).

B. Analysis Under the Social Security Act

To qualify for CDB,3 an adult individual must, among other things, establish that he became "disabled" under the Social Security Act before he turned 22 years old. Toliver v. Berryhill, No. 17 C 4000, 2018 WL 6398912, at *1 (N.D.Ill. Dec. 6, 2018); Snedden v. Colvin, 2016 WL 792301, at *6 (N.D.Ill. Feb. 29, 2016). A person is disabled if he "has an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can beexpected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider the following five-step inquiry: "(1) whether the claimant is currently...

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