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Sculley v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

February 23, 2016

CASANDRA L SCULLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner for Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION & ORDER

WILLIAM M. CONLEY DISTRICT JUDGE.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Casandra L. Sculley seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which found she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Sculley principally contends that the court must remand because Administrative Law Judge John H. Pleuss (“ALJ”): (1) erred in ignoring the opinion of Dr. Maureen Leahy, a treating physician; and (2) improperly analyzed Sculley’s claim for disability based on her fibromyalgia. For the reasons set forth below, the court will remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

FACTS

I. Background

On March 9, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Sculley’s application for Supplement Security Income (“SSI”). (AR 24.)[1] Sculley filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council, which also denied her request for benefits, making the ALJ’s decision the final determination of the Commissioner. (AR 1.) Sculley then filed a timely complaint for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

At the time of the ALJ decision, plaintiff Sculley was a 29-year-old woman alleging disability based primarily on mental health impairments. These impairments date back to the late 1990s where Scully was admitted to the hospital for suicidal ideation. (AR 1128-1135.) More recently, in 2010, she had a “series of nervous breakdowns” and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (AR 899.) This is well summarized in Sculley’s brief. Dkt. 11 at 2-4.

II. Relevant Medical Evidence

In addressing Sculley’s medical impairments as her treating physician, Dr. Leahy noted that she had:

Medically documented history of a chronic organic mental, Schizophrenic . . . or affective disorder of at least 2 years duration that has caused more than a minimal limitation of ability to do any basic work activity, with symptoms or signs currently attenuated by medication or psychosocial support, and one of the following: A residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be predicted to cause the individual to decompensate.

(AR 1031.)

Dr. Leahy further opined that Sculley met Listing 12.04 under the “C” criteria. (AR 1031.) If Dr. Leahy’s opinion were followed, remand would be required because the assessment would result in a finding of “disabled” under Listing 12.04. Even if the ALJ had good grounds to discount or reject her opinion, plaintiff further argues that remand is required by SSR 96-2p and 20 CFR 416.927 because the ALJ provided no insight into how much, if any, weight he gave Dr. Leahy’s opinion.

OPINION

When a federal court reviews a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security, the findings of fact are “conclusive” so long as they are supported by “substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). When reviewing the Commissioner’s findings under § 405(g), the court cannot reconsider facts, re-weigh the evidence, decide questions of credibility or otherwise substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ.Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000).

Here, however, the ALJ erred as a matter of law in considering (or perhaps failing to consider) Dr. Leahy’s opinion, despite her position as Sculley’s treating physician. Such an error requires a remand. The court will not, however, go as far as to direct an award of benefits at this juncture. To do so would be premature as the court cannot step into the shoes of the ALJ and credit Dr. Leahy’s report. Indeed, until the ALJ explains why he gave no weight to Dr. Leahy’s opinion ...


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