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Cullinan v. Berryhill

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 28, 2017

Margaret Cullinan, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued December 12, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15 C11499 - Mary M. Rowland, Magistrate Judge.

          Before Bauer, Ripple, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         Margaret Cullinan appeals the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. She based her claim for benefits on several impairments, most of which arose after she suffered a stroke: anxiety, depression, peripheral blindness in one eye, diabetes, obesity, and sleep apnea. An administrative law judge determined that although Cullinan has several impairments, she is not disabled. Cullinan argues that the ALJ erroneously discredited both her testimony and the opinion of her treating psychologist. We vacate the judgment and remand for further administrative proceedings.

         I. Background

         Cullinan applied for disability benefits and social security income in March 2012 alleging vision problems, side effects from a stroke, diabetes, difficulty balancing, cervical cysts, and fatigue. The Social Security Commission denied Cullinan's application for benefits both initially and on reconsideration. She requested a hearing before an administrative law judge.

         Cullinan worked as a live-in-home certified nurse's aide for 15 years. In May of 2011, she went to the hospital for headaches and blurred vision and was diagnosed with a possible occipital stroke. Initial tests showed 20/40 vision in her right eye and 20/25 in her left, and that she could walk normally. Follow-up examinations showed reduced peripheral vision in her right eye.

         Cullinan's treating neurosurgeon, Dr. George Cybulski, completed a Medical Source Statement in October 2011 describing Cullinan's ability to work. Dr. Cybulski reported that Cullinan suffered from blindness in her right eye and weakness in her right arm and leg, needed a cane to walk, could occasionally lift and carry up to ten pounds, and could not sit, stand, or walk for more than one hour in an eight-hour workday without needing to lie down.

         In August 2012 two of the Social Security Administration's consultative doctors examined Cullinan: psychologist Michael E. Stone performed a mental status exam, and internist Albert Osei conducted a physical exam. Based on Cullinan's report that she had vision and balance problems, anxiety, depression, and diabetes that collectively prevented her from working, Dr. Stone diagnosed her with depression and generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks, and stated that she had a guarded prognosis, meaning she was unlikely to improve. Dr. Osei determined that Cullinan could walk up to half a block, stand, sit, and walk down stairs without difficulty, and that she had good balance while walking. His impression was that Cullinan had impaired peripheral vision in her right eye, diabetes, depression, and anxiety.

         Two nonexamining state-agency consultants evaluated Cullinan's medical records and opined on her residual functional capacity. Psychologist Phyllis Brister completed a form assessment in September 2012 and opined that Cullinan had mild restrictions in daily activities and social functioning, and moderate difficulties maintaining concentration and interacting with the general public. In March 2013 psychologist David Gilliland mostly agreed with Dr. Brister's conclusions, except that he found that Cullinan had moderate difficulties in social functioning instead of mild.

         Cullinan began treatment with Dr. John Canzona, a psychologist, in February 2013. (This was shortly before she received the decision denying her request for reconsideration of the Agency's initial denial of her claim.) During their initial appointment, Cullinan reported that the stroke "ruined [her] life": she moved back in with her parents who "pick on [her]/' she cannot work, and she watches television in her room all day. She said that because of the stroke and her various medications, she lost peripheral vision in her right eye, had difficulty balancing, and was often fatigued. Dr. Canzona found Cullinan's concentration adequate and diagnosed her with a major depressive disorder, and he rated her at a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 55, indicating moderate symptoms from her mental impairments.[1] Also, in February 2013 Cullinan had a hysterectomy and subsequently developed an infection.

         Cullinan continued therapy with Dr. Canzona about once every two weeks through the end of 2013. She discussed her daily activities, mentioning that she did her parents' laundry and was "helpful around the house, " cared for her cousin who lived in a nursing home, and occasionally attended concerts. During one session, she said that she wanted to reconnect with her former boyfriend, and in another she said she "met a man and spent some time with him." She mentioned helping her friend care for foster children with "developmental problems" and helping to care for one of her grandmothers. She said that she attended her parents' anniversary party and her cousin's wake and that she was anxious with "chest pressure" before both events. Finally, she reported wanting to work as a live-in nurse for the elderly and wanting to volunteer at an animal shelter.

         In May 2013 Cullinan had a follow-up appointment with Dr. Regina Hall-Ngorima, her psychiatrist, and reported fatigue, pain, sleep problems, and feeling more depressed and anxious. Dr. Hall-Ngorima diagnosed Cullinan with insomnia and an adjustment disorder ...

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