A northern Indiana woman who applied for Social Security disability benefits shortly after graduating from high school did not convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that an administrative law judge erred in denying her claim.
Danielle Albert, 23, has epilepsy, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, migraines and insomnia. She has only ever lived at home, and her parents support her financially, help manage her medications and assist with other daily tasks.
Additionally, Albert has never had a driver’s license, having been told by her neurologist that her seizure disorder counsels against driving. She has also never worked.
Albert graduated from high school in LaGrange in 2017. Although she struggled in math, her academic performance was otherwise “average.” She also participated in theater and the Indiana Academic Spell Bowl.
While still in high school, Albert expressed a desire to attend college and study criminal justice and forensic psychology. She hoped to work part time while going to school.
Albert enrolled in an online college course but stopped attending after suffering a grand mal seizure in September 2017. She then applied for supplemental security income.
In 2019, an administrative law judge concluded Albert had the residual functional capacity for a range of work at all exertional levels, subject to a few restrictions.
The ALJ credited certain opinions supplied by Dr. Stefanie Wade, a state agency consultative psychiatrist who examined Albert in January 2018. Specifically, the ALJ incorporated Wade’s opinions that Albert “was likely to have difficulty with social interactions,” and that her “daily activities appeared to be simple, daily routines appeared to be somewhat established, understanding appeared limited at times, and she had poor concentration and a low frustration tolerance.”
On one point, however, the ALJ chose not to credit Wade’s opinion. The ALJ found that, “Dr. Wade’s opinion that [Albert] would need some support from others to accomplish appropriate daily tasks is not persuasive and is not established as being necessary to include within the [RFC].”
Instead, the ALJ credited the view of Dr. Donna Unversaw, a state agency physician who reviewed Albert’s files, including Wade’s report, and opined that Albert could “understand, carry out and remember simple instructions” and could “make judgments commensurate with functions of simple, repetitive tasks.”
After relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded Albert was not disabled.
On appeal, Albert contended the RFC failed to account for each of her many limitations that leave her unable to work.
But the 7th Circuit, while noting it was “sympathetic to the struggles Albert has faced because of her health conditions,” wasn’t convinced that reversal was warranted.
First, the appellate court determined that while the ALJ misunderstood testimony provided by Albert’s mother regarding her daughter’s motor skills, the error was harmless.
“If anything, the ALJ’s analysis ruled out a limitation — ‘significant motor neurological deficits, grip strength deficits, or significantly decreased manipulative abilities’ — that Albert is not even advocating,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the unanimous panel. “The ALJ’s error, in short, did not affect the RFC and therefore does not require reversal.”
The 7th Circuit also found a second instance of harmless error in the testimony, determining the outcome was still the same.
“As Albert rightly points out, her parents did not testify that she was never left alone, only that they would be uncomfortable with her living alone full time,” Scudder wrote. “The ALJ saw inconsistency where none existed. But again, this error did not impact the ultimate RFC determination. Indeed, the error occurred in the step-three assessment of the severity of Albert’s mental and physical impairments, not at step four in determining the RFC. And no aspect of the RFC relied on Albert’s ability to live alone.”
Albert also argued that the ALJ overlooked a January 2017 letter from her primary care physician, which said she was disabled due to autism.
“Given that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Albert is not disabled, even accounting for her autism, Dr. Yoder’s letter is not enough to require reversal, Scudder wrote, pointing to Deborah M. v. Saul, 994 F.3d 785, 788 (7th Cir. 2021).
Ultimately, the 7th Circuit determined that the ALJ’s determination effectively “requires Albert to try to get a job and give work a shot.” If she isn’t able to work, the court said, she can again apply for Social Security disability benefits.
The case is Danielle Albert v. Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 21-2592.