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Hamlin v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

September 24, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Respondent.


KARON OWEN BOWDRE, Chief District Judge.

On January 20, 2010, Donna Hamlin, the claimant, filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning on May 31, 2008. (R. 15). She claimed inability to work because of her mental retardation, bipolar disorder, chronic headaches, and chronic back pain. (R. 210). The Commissioner denied the claim on March 22, 2010. After filing a request for a hearing, the ALJ conducted a video hearing on January5, 2012.

On March 9, 2012, the ALJ determined the claimant was not disabled, as defined by the Social Security Act from May 31, 2008, her alleged onset date, to the time of the hearing. (R. 26). On July 12, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review; consequently the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (R. 1). The claimant exhausted administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). For the reasons stated below, this court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.


The issue before the court is whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that the claimant did not meet a listing under § 12.05(C) for mental impairments.


The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if the factual conclusions are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

"No... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal claims." Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. However, this court does not review the Commissioner's factual determinations de novo; the court will affirm those factual determinations that are supported by substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors "are not medical opinions, ... but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court "may not decide facts a new, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as substantial evidence in the record supports it.

The court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s factual findings." Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not look only to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).


A person is entitled to disability benefits when the person cannot "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42. U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process:

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of "not disabled."

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986); 20. C.F.R.§ § 404.1520, 416.920.

The Eleventh Circuit determined that, for a claimant to be disabled under § 12.05, she must have "(1) significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning; (2) have deficits in adaptive behavior; and (3) have manifested deficits in adaptive behavior before age 22." Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219-20 (11th Cir. 1997). To establish a disability under §12.05(C), a claimant must establish "a valid verbal, performance or full-scale IQ score of 60 through 70 and a physical or other mental impairment imposing additional and significant work-related limitation of function." Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993) (emphasis added). To display deficits in adaptive behavior, a claimant must have a full-scale IQ score between 60 and 70 and two of the following impairments: (1) marked restriction in daily living; (2); marked difficulty in social functioning; (3) marked inability to maintain concentration, persistence, or pace; or (4) repeat, extended episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.05D.

The Eleventh Circuit, however, also determined that an ALJ is not required to base a finding of mental retardation on the results of an IQ test alone when he evaluates whether a claimant meets the requirements of § 12.05(C). Popp v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 1497, 1499 (11th Cir. 1986); see also Strunk v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 1357, 1360 (7th Cir. 1984) (finding that no case law "requir[es] the Secretary to make a finding of mental retardation based solely upon the results of a standardized intelligence test in its determination of mental retardation"). An ALJ is required to base his determination of mental retardation on the combination of intelligence tests and the medical report. ALJs should evaluate intelligence tests "to assure consistency with daily activities and behavior." Popp, 779 F.2d at 1499. If intelligence tests are inconsistent with the medical record and/or the claimant's daily activities and behavior, the ALJ would have a good reason to discredit them. Popp, 779 F.2d at 1500; Lowery v. Sullivan, 979 F.2d 835, 837 (11th Cir. 1992) (finding that a valid IQ score need not be conclusive of mental retardation when the IQ score is inconsistent with other evidence in the record concerning the claimant's daily activities and behavior). When the evidence conflicts, "it is the ALJ's responsibility, not the court's, to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence.'" White v. Astrue, 2012 U.S. Dist. Lexis 44494, *14 (W.D. N.C. 2012) (quoting Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976)).


The claimant was age 40 at the time of the administrative hearing and had an eighth grade education. (R. 205, 41). She previously worked as a home health aide, fast food worker, laborer at a race track, yard laborer, and an assembly line worker. (R. 212). The claimant initially alleged that she was unable to work because of bipolar disorder, chronic back pain, and chronic headaches. However, during the hearing, the claimant presented new evidence and alleged disability based upon mental retardation. (R. 35).

On appeal, the claimant did not contest the ALJ's findings regarding the impact of her bipolar disorder, back pain, or headaches. She only disputed the ALJ's ...

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