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Recha v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

December 30, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]


          JAMES D. PETERSON District Judge.

         Plaintiff Adam James Recha seeks judicial review of a final decision of defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, finding him not disabled under the Social Security Act. He contends that administrative law judge (ALJ) Lawrence E. Blatnik erred in (1) assigning weight to two sources' opinions regarding Recha's capabilities; and (2) improperly accounting for Recha's mental limitations in determining his residual functional capacity (RFC). The case is scheduled for oral argument on January 6, 2020, but oral argument is unnecessary. Because neither of Recha's arguments warrants remand, the court will affirm the commissioner's decision.


         Recha was injured in a car accident on November 24, 2014, hitting his head on his car's windshield. R. 13 and R. 282.[2] After receiving initial treatment for his injuries, he was voluntarily hospitalized a few weeks later, reporting that he was hearing voices telling him to harm himself and others.[3] He was discharged to outpatient care a few days after his admission with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a cognitive disorder due to his head injury, and cluster A personality traits. R. 387. He took psychiatric medications and participated in therapy to manage his symptoms. R. 1020.

         He filed an application for disability insurance benefits on January 27, 2015, alleging that he had been disabled since September 28, 2014. The ALJ held a hearing on November 16, 2017, after which the agency arranged for Recha to be examined by a consulting psychologist, Brenda Reed. After receiving Reed's report, the ALJ determined that Recha had severe impairments of schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit disorder, personality disorder, and a history of traumatic brain injury. R. 13. He concluded that Recha had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels so long as he was restricted to “simple, routine, repetitive tasks” with “only brief, superficial contact with supervisors or the public” and that he could “tolerate simple changes in routine, avoid hazards, travel independently and make and carry out simple plans.” R. 15. Based on this RFC, the ALJ denied Recha's application for benefits, concluding that he could perform his past relevant work as a store laborer, R. 17.

         So long as the ALJ's decision applies the correct legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court must uphold it. Campbell v. Astrue, 627 F.3d 299, 306 (7th Cir. 2010).


         A. Weight given to source opinions

         Recha challenges the weight given by the ALJ to the opinions of Lisa Fitzpatrick, a state agency psychologist, and Randall Ahrens, Recha's therapist.

         1. Fitzpatrick's opinion

         Recha contends that the ALJ erred in assigning great weight to the opinion of Lisa Fitzpatrick, the state agency consultant who reviewed Recha's medical record in November 2015. (Actually, the ALJ gave only significant weight, not great weight, to Fitzpatrick's opinion. This is but one of several inaccuracies in Recha's brief; this one is not material to the court's analysis.) Fitzpatrick noted that in January 2015, Recha had responded well to medication and “did not show any signs of active psychosis.” R. 78-79. Recha says that Fitzpatrick's opinion is outdated. An ALJ cannot rely on a medical reviewer's opinion if later medical evidence could reasonably have changed the reviewer's mind. Moreno v. Berryhill, 882 F.3d 722, 728 (7th Cir. 2018).

         In his brief, Recha summarizes evidence from 2016 and 2017 in which he reported waxing and waning auditory and visual hallucinations. Fitzpatrick was aware in November 2015 that Recha had alleged worsening mental impairment. But Fitzpatrick reviewed records from Recha's mental health treatment providers from throughout 2015, and yet she concluded that Recha was not disabled. Fitzpatrick was well aware of Recha's hallucinations: shortly after the car accident, Recha reported what he called hallucinations, which he said actually began before the accident. Recha hasn't shown that his reports of hallucinations in 2016 and 2017 would have changed Fitzpatrick's conclusions. The mere fact that Recha's medical record continued to grow after Fitzpatrick's evaluation does not warrant remand. Keys v. Berryhill, 679 Fed.Appx. 477, 481 (7th Cir. 2017) (“If an ALJ were required to update the record any time a claimant continued to receive treatment, a case might never end.”) (citing Scheck v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 697, 702 (7th Cir. 2004)). Recha simply cites continuing treatment; he does not show that Fitzpatrick's opinion is entitled to less weight than the ALJ assigned it.

         2. Ahrens's opinion

         Recha says that the ALJ failed to assess the opinion of Randall Ahrens, Recha's therapist, using the factors required by the agency. The ALJ gave lesser weight to Ahrens's restrictions than to those of agency consultants Fitzpatrick and Reed because he found Ahrens's restrictions inconsistent with and unsupported by Ahrens's treatment records and other medical-record evidence. R. 16. (In his briefing, Recha repeatedly refers to the psychological opinion of Sandra ...

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