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Kaminski v. Berryhill

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 9, 2018

ANTHONY KAMINSKI, Plaintiff-Appellant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued April 25, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 16-CV-514 - Jon E. DeGuilio, Judge.

          Before Manion, Hamilton, and Barrett, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         In 2000, Anthony Kaminski fell down a flight of stairs, suffering a head wound that caused a traumatic brain injury and a seizure disorder. Thirteen years later, he applied under the Social Security Act for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The Social Security Administration denied his applications, and the district court upheld the denial. Kaminski appeals, arguing that the administrative law judge improperly rejected his treating physician's opinions. We agree with Kaminski. Because the treating physician's opinions and the testimony of the vocational expert together show that Kaminski is disabled, we remand the case to the agency with instructions to award benefits to Kaminski.

         I. Background

         After Kaminski's fall in 2000, doctors determined that he had suffered a seizure, was experiencing an intracerebral hematoma (bleeding in his brain), and had fractured his left jawbone. They reported that, as a result of the fall, Kaminski had severe cognitive deficits-including problems with memory and a change in personality-and an inability to understand the severity of his injury.

         Kaminski began regularly seeing a neurologist, Dr. Richard Cristea, who monitored his seizure disorder and prescribed him an anticonvulsant. Over the ensuing years, Kaminski, while under Dr. Cristea's care, suffered at least four seizures-in 2007, 2008, 2013, and 2014.

         Kaminski applied in 2013 for disability benefits, alleging that he became disabled on the date of his fall. His strongest evidence of disability consisted of a residual functional capacity form and medical-source statements that Dr. Cristea submitted in the summer of 2013.

         Dr. Cristea reported that brain atrophy and asymmetry shown by a 2013 MRI were consistent with the traumatic brain injury that Kaminski suffered in 2000. Dr. Cristea noted that Kaminski had "frequent falls" and opined that seizures could be triggered by physical activity, stress, inadequate sleep, and dehydration, so Kaminski was incapable of performing even low-stress work. The seizures often caused Kaminski to be confused, irritable, and fatigued, and they impaired his coordination, his level of alertness, and his awareness of his surroundings. And Kaminski's brain damage, Dr. Cristea wrote, impeded his ability to organize thoughts (especially when listening to someone speak), as well as to understand what he saw or heard, and it "changed" his behavior and personality. According to Dr. Cristea, Kaminski was "totally disabled," and it was "unsafe [for him] to work in any capacity."

         In connection with Kaminski's application, a state-agency physician and a state-agency psychologist examined him in the spring of 2013. Much of the physical exam was normal, with the physician recording that Kaminski reported no feelings of weakness, dizziness, or memory loss. He displayed a stable mood and was able to show appropriate insight and judgment. The psychological examination, however, noted Kaminski's poor hygiene; memory lapses and poor math skills; an inability to interpret proverbs; and his bouts of depression, moodiness, and anger. On the other hand, two consultants for the state agency reviewed Kaminski's file without actually examining him. They opined that he could do semi-skilled medium work with some restrictions.

         After the Social Security Administration denied Kaminski's claims, an administrative law judge held a hearing at which Kaminski and his sister testified. Before his accident, Kaminski had worked as a carpenter. When the judge asked him why he could not work, he answered, "Because of my seizures and me falling down and I get dizzy and I really can't … be around people, too many people because I get frustrated. I'll get aggravated and I'll blow up with them." Kaminski testified that he lived alone, and that the possibility of a seizure prevented him from doing most activities. He could not drive, and his friends helped him shop and clean his house. Kaminski's sister testified about his change in personality since the accident. Before, he had been "very independent," but he had become unfocused, unclean, and verbally abusive, and did not tolerate criticism or take direction.

         A vocational expert also testified about Kaminski's employment prospects. The judge asked whether work was available for a person with Kaminski's age, education, and experience, with a residual functional capacity for medium work, appropriate physical limitations, and a number of other limitations related to his mental status: limited to hearing and understanding only simple oral instructions; limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks (but not at production-rate pace); limited to simple work-related decisions in dealing with changes in the work setting; and limited to having to respond appropriately only occasionally to coworkers and the public.

         The expert said that such a person would be unable to do Kaminski's past carpentry work but could work as a general helper, laundry laborer, or dryer attendant. But if limits were added consistent with Dr. Cristea's opinions, so that the person would be either off task 20 percent of the workday, unable to accept instructions or ...

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