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Bertram v. Colvin

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

September 25, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c), claimant Arthur Bertram seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), who denied Mr. Bertram's claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits. (Doc. 1). As discussed below, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Therefore, the Court affirms the Commissioner's ruling.


The scope of review in this matter is limited. "When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, " the Court "review[s] the ALJ's factual findings with deference' and [his] legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'" Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's findings. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not "reweigh the evidence or decide the facts anew, " and the Court must "defer to the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may preponderate against it." Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed. Appx 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013).

With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


On February 9, 2010, Mr. Bertram applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and an application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI. (TR 25, 154, 156).

The Social Security Administration denied Mr. Bertram's application on April 16, 2010. ( Id. ). At Mr. Bertram's request, an Administrative Law Judge conducted a hearing on September 9, 2011. (TR 78-145; 167-168). Mr. Bertram, Mr. Bertram's father, Mr. Bertram's wife, and David Head, an impartial vocational expert, testified during the September 9, 2011 hearing. (TR 25). Following the testimony, the ALJ decided to withhold a ruling until he received evidence from a new specialist who Mr. Bertram was scheduled to see after the hearing. (TR 142). The ALJ held a supplemental hearing on April 24, 2012. (TR 40). Mr. Bertram; William A. Rack M.D., an impartial medical expert; and Joe W. Mann, an impartial vocational expert, testified during the second hearing. (TR 25, 41).

Mr. Bertram was 31 years old when he appeared at his first hearing in September 2011. He turned 32 before the second hearing in April 2012. (TR 32). Mr. Bertram has a high school education. Before seeking disability benefits he worked as a truck loader and unloader. (TR 32). At the hearings, Mr. Bertram claimed he could not work because of his seizures. (TR 155). Mr. Bertram testified that he suffers daily from petit seizures. During these seizures, he stares off into space, appearing frozen for minutes at a time. He does not remember the episodes. (TR 29, 91-93). Mr. Bertram also maintains that he suffers from occasional grand mal seizures which leave him severely fatigued for up to 48 hours after each episode. (TR 29, 91-93). Mr. Bertram claims that his condition limits his physical ability to squat, bend, stand, reach, walk, kneel, talk, and climb stairs. (TR 29). Mr. Bertram reported that his episodes impair his cognitive ability to remember and understand information, concentrate, and follow instructions. (TR 29, 110-112).

Mr. Bertram contends that he was unable to follow a prescription medication therapy both because he could not afford the drugs and because he experienced debilitating side effects to several different drugs he tried over the course of his treatment. (TR 31). Mr. Bertram began receiving Medicaid benefits that he could use to help pay for medication approximately one month before his first hearing. (TR 97). Mr. Bertram never has stayed on medication for more than a month, purportedly because side effects generally manifest within a week of starting anti-seizure medications. (TR 29). Side effects include mood swings, skin rashes, insomnia, and excessive sleepiness. (TR 29).

Despite his lack of treatment, Mr. Bertram is able to prepare simple meals, wash his clothes, wash dishes, plant flowers, grocery shop, read, watch television, and attend church. (TR 31). Mr. Bertram also serves as the primary caregiver for his one year old child, and he tends to a number of farm animals on his property. (TR 31).

In his decision, the ALJ found that Mr. Bertram had not "engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2008, the alleged onset date." (TR 27). The ALJ concluded that Mr. Bertram's seizures were a severe impairment because they cause "more than minimal functional limitations on the [Mr. Bertram's] ability to perform work-related duties on a sustained basis." (TR 27). Despite Mr. Bertram's limitations, the ALJ determined that Mr. Bertram's "extensive history of non-compliance to prescribed seizure medication, " and failure to provide "medical confirmation that [he]... remained on any anti-seizure medication for at least three months" prevents the seizures from meeting or equaling the listing requirement under 11.03. (TR 28). Next, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Bertram had the "residual functional capacity perform all sitting, standing, walking, lifting and carrying, pushing and pulling required for medium exertional work." (TR 28). The ALJ noted that Mr. Bertram would have to take standard seizure precautions: "no operation of motor vehicles; no work around unprotected heights; no work on or around open water; no work where he would be exposed to hazards or moving machinery; and no heavy lifting." (TR 28). Although the ALJ determined that Mr. Bertram could not perform his past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Bertram could perform, including hand packager, hospital cleaner, and marker/tagger. (TR. 33). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Bertram was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (TR 33).

On February 11, 2013, this became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration when the Appeals Council refused to review the ALJ's decision. (TR 1). Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Mr. Bertram filed this action for judicial review pursuant to §205(g) and §1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g) and §1383(c)(3).


To be eligible for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must be disabled. Gaskin, 533 Fed.Appx. at 930. "A claimant is disabled if he is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically-determinable impairment that can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months." Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). A claimant must prove that he is disabled. Id. (citing Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003). To determine ...

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