7th Circuit upholds denial of disability benefits, urges petitioner to ‘try the job’

A Northern Indiana woman who applied for Social Security disability benefits shortly after graduating from high school was unconvinced on 7and Circuit Court of Appeals that an administrative law judge erred in dismissing his application.

Danielle Albert, 23, suffers from 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 help her with other daily tasks.

In addition, Albert has never had a driver’s license, his neurologist having told him that his seizure disorder advised him not to drive. She never worked either.

Albert graduated from high school at LaGrange in 2017. Although she struggled in math, her academic performance was otherwise “average.” She has also participated in theater and the Indiana Academic Spell Bowl.

While still in high school, Albert expressed a desire to go to 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 an epileptic seizure in September 2017. She then applied for Supplemental Security Income.

In 2019, an administrative law judge found that Albert had residual functional capacity for a range of work at all levels of effort, subject to a few restrictions.

The ALJ credited certain opinions provided by Dr. Stefanie Wade, a state agency advisory psychiatrist who examined Albert in January 2018. Specifically, the ALJ incorporated Wade’s opinions that Albert “was susceptible to have difficulty with social interactions” and that her “daily activities seemed to be simple, daily routines seemed somewhat set, comprehension seemed limited at times, and she had low concentration and low tolerance for frustration.

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 the support of others to perform appropriate daily tasks is unconvincing and not established as necessary to include in the [RFC].”

Instead, the ALJ credited the view of Dr. Donna Unversaw, a state agency physician who reviewed Albert’s records, including Wade’s report, and believed that Albert could “understand, execute and memorize simple instructions” and could “make judgments commensurate with the functions of simple and repetitive tasks.

After relying on the testimony of a professional expert, the ALJ concluded that Albert was not disabled.

On appeal, Albert argued that the RFC failed to consider each of his many limitations that prevented him from working.

But the 7and Circuit, while noting that it was “sympathetic to the struggles Albert has faced due to his medical condition”, was not convinced that the reversal was warranted.

First, the appeals court determined that even if the ALJ misunderstood the testimony given 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 reduced manipulative abilities’ — that Albert doesn’t even advocate,” wrote the judge Michael Scudder for the unanimous panel. “The ALJ’s error, in short, did not affect the RFC and therefore does not require revocation.”

7and Circuit also found a second instance of innocuous error in the testimony, determining that the result 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 full-time single life,” Scudder wrote. “The ALJ saw inconsistencies where there were none. But again, this error did not impact the final RFC determination. Indeed, the error occurred during of the stage three assessment of the severity of Albert’s mental and physical impairments, not the stage four determination of the RFC, and no aspect of the RFC relied on Albert’s ability to live on his own.

Albert also argued that the ALJ ignored a January 2017 letter from her primary care physician, which stated that she was disabled due to autism.

“Given that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Albert is not disabled, even taking into account his autism, Dr. Yoder’s letter is not sufficient to require a reversal, Scudder wrote, pointing to Deborah M. v. Saul994 F.3d 785, 788 (7th Cir. 2021).

In the end, the 7and Circuit determined that the ALJ’s determination “effectively compels Albert to try to find a job and give the job a chance.” If she is unable to work, the court said, she can apply for Social Security disability benefits again.

The case is Danielle Albert c. Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Social Security Commissioner21-2592.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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