6 years after finding flaws in disability benefits case, 7th Circuit remands again

August 10, 2016

Fifteen years after a woman first applied for disability benefits based on degenerative disk disease, obesity, depression, and other ailments, she continues to fight the denial of benefits by the Social Security Administration. On Tuesday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the SSA take another look at her case, the second time it has done so.

Louquetta R. O’Connor-Spinner, 47, has applied several times since 2001 for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. In 2004, the SSA denied her request, but the 7th Circuit reversed in 2010. The court found the administrative law judge had committed two errors related to her depression. First, the ALJ had not asked a testifying vocational expert to assess how her employment prospects would be affected by her moderate limitation on concentration, persistence and pace. Second, the ALJ ignored a psychologist’s opinion that O’Connor-Spinner also faces a moderate limitation on her ability to accept instructions from, and respond appropriately to, supervisors, Circuit Judge Daniel Manion wrote in Tuesday's decision.

But O’Connor-Spinner’s case was reassigned to a new ALJ who concluded that her depression is not and has never been a severe impairment. This decision was affirmed in the Southern District of Indiana.

“Had the new ALJ followed our narrow instructions to address the shortcomings in his predecessor’s decision, this appeal would be simple (if necessary at all). But instead the ALJ reevaluated O’Connor-Spinner’s condition himself and, despite new evidence that strengthens the earlier finding that she suffers from severe depression, found the opposite,” Manion wrote.

“But here the ALJ decided that ‘major depression, recurrent severe’ isn’t a severe impairment based on the opinions of two state-agency psychologists who did not even examine, let alone treat, O’Connor-Spinner. That determination is not supported by substantial evidence and, indeed, strikes us as nonsensical given the diagnosis, by definition, reflects a practitioner’s assessment that the patient suffers from ‘clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,’” Manion wrote, citing the American Psychiatric Association.

“We have not found a published opinion from any circuit in which an ALJ declared that major depression was not a severe impairment, although two unpublished decisions soundly reject this assertion. Rather than relying on the guidance of professionals and evidence from O’Connor-Spinner’s treating sources, the ALJ ‘played doctor’ by substituting his opinion for their medical judgment.”

Manion noted six years after the court remanded O’Connor-Spinner’s case with simple instructions, the matter remains unresolved because the new ALJ failed to comply with the court’s instructions. As such, the 7th Circuit vacated the judgment of the District Court and remanded the case to the agency. On remand, the ALJ should determine what limitations are caused by O’Connor-Spinner’s “major depression, recurrent severe” and fully explore with a vocational expert the effect of those limitations on her ability to engage in competitive employment.

The case is Louquetta R. O’Connor-Spinner v. Carolyn W. Colvin, acting commissioner of Social Security, 15-2567.


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