Disability Case Back to Social Security After ALJ Dismisses Moderate Depression

O'Connor-Spinner v. Colvin (2016)

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law
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This article discusses an actual Social Security disability claim for degenerative disk disease, obesity, depression, and other impairments that was denied by Social Security and appealed twice to federal court. I'll summarize the history of the case and explain the Seventh Circuit's 2016 decision.

Facts of the Disability Claim

The disability claimant, Louquetta O'Connor-Spinner, applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2004 based on degenerative disk disease, obesity, depression, sleep apnea, and restrictive lung disease. While both O'Connor-Spinner and Social Security agreed that her physical ailments limited her to performing no more than sedentary work due to her physical ailments, the issue in the case was whether the claimant's depression rendered her unable to perform full-time work.

The claimant had been treated for depression on a somewhat sporadic basis prior to her 2004 application. She visited a community mental health center three times in 2002, displaying symptoms including impulsivity and agitation, and reporting multiple "explosive" episodes per week involving violence and memory blackouts. She also described suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts. However, the state-agency psychiatrist and psychologists who reviewed her records generally found that she had only mild to moderate limitations to her ability to work.

The ALJ at the appeal hearing denied the case and it was appealed to federal court, where the Seventh Circuit judge sent the case back to the ALJ for failing to consider how moderate limitations from depression would impact the claimant's ability to work. In sending back the case, the court issued the following instructions to the ALJ:

  • Ask the vocational expert how the claimant's employment prospects would be affected by moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace; and
  • Give proper consideration to a psychologist's opinion that the plaintiff would have moderate difficulties accepting instructions from supervisors and responding appropriately to supervisors.

But Social Security assigned the case to a different ALJ, who ignored the federal court's instructions and instead declared that the claimant's depression did not even qualify as a "severe impairment," meaning that it failed to advance beyond step 2 of Social Security's 5-step sequential evaluation process for disability. The claimant appealed again to the Seventh Circuit.

The Judge's Decision

On appeal for the second time, the Seventh Circuit judge took issue with the ALJ's finding that the claimant's depression was not a "severe impairment," writing that the test for whether a medical condition is a "severe impairment" was a "de minimis screening" intended to dispose of cases with "slight abnormalities that only minimally impact a claimant's basic activities."

The court continued:

The judge also noted that if anything, the claimant's symptoms were becoming more severe, not less. This made the second ALJ's finding that the claimant's depression did not meet the low "severe impairment" standard all the more baffling. The court again sent the case back to Social Security for further consideration of the claimant's mental impairments.

Lessons From the Decision

One of the most striking aspects of this case is the sheer amount of time that is sometimes required between an initial application for benefits and a final decision. In the conclusion of its decision, the Seventh Circuit notes with exasperation:

Of course, since the Seventh Circuit sent the case back to Social Security for further consideration rather than awarding benefits itself, it will likely be another year (or more) until the claimant actually receives disability benefits, if she ever does.

Other than the need for patience, another takeaway from this case is the importance of continuing to receive medical treatment while your case is on appeal. The federal judge cited the claimant's mental health treatment notes from 2006, 2010, and 2011 as evidence that her depression was worsening, not improving. To be sure, it is not always easy to obtain consistent treatment, whether due to cost or the fact that treatment does not seem to be helping your condition. But seeing a doctor on a regular basis is not only the right thing to do for your health, it also greatlyincreases your chances of winning your disability case.

Read the full text of this case, O'Connor-Spinner v. Colvin, 832 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016).

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