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7th Circuit: Schizophrenia meets ‘severe impairment’ requirement for disability insurance

October 4, 2016

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an undisputed diagnosis of schizophrenia should be considered a “severe impairment,” an opinion that will allow an Indiana man to have another chance to receive disability insurance benefits after he was forced to quit his job because of his mental illness.

After he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1996, George Meuser began taking the prescription drug Zyprexa, a drug he would continue to take for 15 years to help him to manage his symptoms, maintain his moods and sleep eight to 10 hours per night.

However, Meuser’s pharmacist switched him to a generic form of the drug in late 2011, which led to Meuser suffering from insomnia and a lack of focus at work. He chose to take a leave of absence from his job working in a mailroom in December 2011.

After switching psychiatrists, Meuser was put back on the name-brand drug, and his symptoms eventually began to improve. However, Meuser still maintained that he did not feel well enough to work, so he quit his job.

Meuser then applied for disability insurance benefits in February 2012, but his application was rejected after two agency consultants found that his schizophrenia was not a severe impairment. During this process, Meuser’s psychiatrist reported that his symptoms “waxed and waned,” particularly in regard to his sleeping habits. Meuser’s mother also reported that her son’s symptoms were making it more difficult for him to function on a normal level and were causing him to become more withdrawn.

At a September 2013 hearing before an administrative law judge, Meuser testified to his sleeping problems, saying they prevented him from functioning properly at work. He also testified that he had trouble remembering to complete tasks, such as going to the doctor or finishing the laundry. The ALJ concluded his schizophrenia was not a severe impairment as did a magistrate judge.

The Appeals Council denied review of Meuser’s case, which prompted his appeal to the 7th Circuit Court in George B. Meuser v. Carolyn W. Colvin, 16-1052.

On appeal, Meuser argued that schizophrenia on its own is enough to constitute “the severe impairment” requirement of Step 2 of five-step disability analysis to receive disability insurance benefits.

The 7th Circuit agreed, writing “we have difficulty imagining how an uncontested diagnosis of schizophrenia (which describes Mesuer’s situation) could not survive Step 2.”

Further, the 7th Circuit wrote that the ALJ made other errors that would support Meuser’s case, even if the Step 2 issue were not in question.

In his appeal, Meuser argued that the ALJ had a fundamental misunderstanding of the diagnosis and symptoms of schizophrenia when he ruled that his “negative symptoms” – such as lack of hallucinations or other thought problems – meant he had no symptoms at all.

Both Meuser and the 7th Circuit rejected that notion, saying that his “negative” symptoms actually meant that he was emotionally impaired and did not show interest in work or social activities.

“Thus, the ALJ improperly played doctor when he ignored expert opinions to arrive at his own, incorrect, interpretation of the medical evidence,” the appellate court wrote.

The 7th Circuit Court also accused the ALJ of “cherry picking” evidence, saying he ignored other reported negative symptoms of Meuser’s schizophrenia, including a blunted or flat affect and a depressed mood.
The appellate court accused the judge of giving undue credit to the agency consultant’s opinions while largely ignoring the opinions of Meuser’s psychiatrist.

Thus, the 7th Circuit Court reversed the decision to deny Meuser disability insurance benefits and remanded the case for further proceedings.
 

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