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West v. Colvin

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

July 29, 2014

JOSEPH M. WEST, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of SSA, Defendant.


Tim A. Baker United States Magistrate Judge Southern District of Indiana

The parties appeared by counsel July 14, 2014, for an oral argument on Plaintiff’s claim for disability benefits. Set forth below is the Magistrate Judge’s recommended decision issued from the bench following that argument. This ruling recommends that the ALJ’s determination be reversed and that this case be remanded for further proceedings. Any objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation shall be filed with the Clerk in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Failure to file timely objections within fourteen days after service shall constitute waiver of subsequent review absent a showing of good cause for such failure.

THE COURT: This case presents the following primary issues for appeal: First, whether the ALJ erred by not giving adequate weight to the treating physician’s opinion in whether the ALJ’s conclusions are supported by substantial evidence; and second, whether the ALJ erred in a step five determination by using the grid to determine the Plaintiff’s disability by failing to identify the existence of significant jobs in the national economy and by failing to use a vocational expert.

By way of background, Plaintiff was steadily employed from I believe it was 1993 through 2009. In any event, he had a steady work employment but then filed for disability for a period alleging a disability onset date of June 20, 2009. An ALJ found that he was not disabled through the date of the decision, which was November 18, 2011.

The Plaintiff alleged both physical and mental impairments in support of his disability claim. Although Plaintiff was hospitalized on an emergency basis for threatening suicide by way of sticking a knife to his throat, the ALJ found any alleged mental impairment as not severe and unsupported by the medical evidence.

The ALJ did find that Plaintiff had the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease but found that this did not constitute a disability. The appeals counsel then denied review, and this appeal followed. In considering this appeal, the standard of review provides that the Court must uphold the ALJ’s decision if substantial evidence supports the findings. Terry, T-E-R-R-Y v. Astrue, 580 F.3d 471 at 475 (7th Cir. 2009).

The ALJ is obligated to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherrypick facts that support a finding of nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding, Denton v. Astrue 596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010).

If evidence contradicts the ALJ’s conclusion, the ALJ must confront the evidence and explain why it was rejected. Moore, M-O-O-R-E v. Colvin, C-O-L-V-I-N, 743 F.3d 1118 at 1123 (7th Cir. 2014).

The ALJ, however, need not mention every piece of evidence as long as the ALJ builds a logical bridge from the evidence to the conclusion. Pepper v. Colvin, 712 F.3d 351 at 362 (7th Cir. 2013).

West asserts that the ALJ failed to justify his reason for discrediting his treating physician's opinion on his mental and physical impairments. I will address that issue first with respect to his mental impairments as well as overall, whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence.

The ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Aldo Buonanno’s November 2, 2009, psychiatric evaluation of the Plaintiff but gave great weight to Dr. Joseph Pressner’s December 11, 2009, consultative examination of the Plaintiff. The ALJ takes issue with the fact that Dr. Buonanno saw Plaintiff only one time; but the fact is, that Dr. Pressner never saw him at all. Moreover, Dr. Buonanno is a psychiatrist, whereas Dr. Pressner is a psychologist. More important, Dr. Pressner and the ALJ failed to even mention -- let me strike that. The ALJ fails to mention -- not Dr. Pressner.

The ALJ fails to mention that in July of 2010, the Plaintiff was committed to Howard Regional Hospital psychiatric unit after threatening to kill himself with a knife in front of his wife. That is in the record at pages 440 through 445. The ALJ’s conclusion that there is a lack of medical records with no evidence of decompensation fails to account for Plaintiff’s detention to the psychiatric unit and the subsequent treatment notes that are in the record at pages 341 through 446.

I find it significant that the ALJ gave little weight to Dr. Buonanno’s determination and great weight to Dr. Pressner’s determination when understandably with the benefit of hindsight, Dr. Buonanno’s impressions proved much more on the mark. But certainly, the ALJ should have mentioned the emergency room and subsequent admission of the Plaintiff in connection with this attempted suicide. The ALJ’s failure to mention that episode in any way undermines the ALJ’s determination that the Plaintiff had no mental impairment and to give great weight to Dr. Pressner’s decision while giving little weight to Dr. Buonanno’s evaluation. Indeed, Dr. Buonanno’s assessment of the Plaintiff’s mental health is consistent with the complaints asserted in the July 2010 psychiatric detention. In addition, Dr. Buonanno’s evaluation indicated that the Plaintiff had suicidal ideations in the past and that West struggled in organizing his thoughts.

In fact, looking at Dr. Buonanno’s evaluation, it is striking the difficulties that he observed the Plaintiff was undergoing, which included at page 276 of the record, that the Plaintiff didn’t understand basic proverbs, had difficulty understanding the difference between an apple and a peach, couldn’t name five states, ...

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