United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
DAVID PROCTOR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Kristy Hunter brings this action pursuant to Title XVI of
Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the
“Act”), seeking review of the decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)
denying her claims for a period of Supplemental Security
Income (“SSI”). See also, 42 U.S.C.
1383(c). Based on the court's review of the record and
the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the
decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.
filed her application for SSI benefits on December 31, 2011,
alleging disability dating back to July 19, 2008. (R-47). The
Social Security Administration (“SSA”) initially
denied Plaintiff's application on April 24, 2012. (R-43).
Plaintiff then requested a hearing on May 7, 2012, which
Plaintiff received on June 17, 2013. (R-47-56). Plaintiff
asked for a continuance to obtain representation, which
Administrative Law Judge George W. Merchant
(“ALJ”) granted. (R-47). Plaintiff failed to
appear at the hearing set for October 3, 2013 and the ALJ
sent Plaintiff a Notice to Show Cause. (R-124). Plaintiff
responded that she mistakenly believed she had obtained
representation that she thought would attend in her place.
(R-224). The ALJ reset the hearing for January 29, 2014.
(R-127). However, inclement weather caused this hearing to be
canceled and rescheduled for April 21, 2014. (Ex. B2A).
Plaintiff failed once again to appear for rescheduled
hearing, and that led the ALJ to send a second Notice to Show
Cause to Plaintiff. (R-151-52). Plaintiff responded by
indicating that appearing at a hearing would trigger her
anxiety and that she did not wish to appear, and stated that
the ALJ should decide the case based on the existing record.
decision, dated August 8, 2014, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under Section
1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act for the adjudicated period of
December 31, 2011 to August 8, 2014. (R-44). The Appeals
Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the
ALJ's decision on February 17, 2016 and rendered that
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff,
who was 38 at time of filing, alleged disability on the
grounds of anxiety disorder with agoraphobia and panic
attacks, severe depression, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia,
dizzy spells with syncope, blurry vision, asthma, bilateral
knee pain, morbid obesity, and hypertension. (R-49).
Plaintiff possesses no relevant work experience. (R-55).
Muller, Ph.D., administered a psychological evaluation to
Plaintiff on January 5, 2005. (R-258-62). Dr. Muller
diagnosed Plaintiff with panic disorder with agoraphobia and
the record shows that she continued to seek treatment
intermittently for anxiety-related issues. (R-258, R-271-87,
R-320-30). Jack Bentley, Jr., Ph.D., administered a more
recent psychological evaluation of Plaintiff on April 29,
2012, diagnosing her with depressive disorder and affirming
the earlier diagnosis of Dr. Muller. (R-297-300). However,
the ALJ afforded minimal weight to Dr. Bentley's
testimony given that he is not licensed in the State of
Alabama and primarily based his conclusions on
Plaintiff's physical ailments-to which his background in
psychology would not appear to render him qualified to speak.
medical evidence on Plaintiff points to hypertension and
obesity, as her treating Nurse Practitioner noted that
Plaintiff possessed a BMI of 70.5. (R-377-83). The generally
accepted measure of obesity is a BMI over 30. (SSR 02-1p).
Plaintiff's medical record shows intermittent medical
treatment for hypertension, particularly from Dr. Stephanie
Morgan, M.D. (R-340-352). Plaintiff only offered evidence of
sporadic treatment for anxiety-related issues and they often
involved a specific traumatic event. (R-271-87). This
includes an October 6, 2011 trip to the emergency room for an
anxiety attack stemming from the recent death of
Plaintiff's grandmother. (R-271-87). Philip Rogers, a
Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner with Quality of Life
Health Services, Inc., reported that Plaintiff appeared
oriented to time, place, person, and situation when he
treated her and displayed the “appropriate mood and
affect, ” despite noting her reported anxiety problems.
(R-293-96). Dr. Morgan similarly noted Plaintiff's
alertness and ability to provide proper medical history.
(R-348). Plaintiff presented herself to DeKalb Regional
Medical Center complaining of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
on March 13, 2014. (R-367-76). During this visit, Dr. Ashley
Stoke, M.D. noted that Plaintiff's behavior appeared
proper for her age and did not report any noticeable signs of
medical record includes a diagnosis for carpal tunnel
syndrome and fibromyalgia. (R-50). However, the record does
not also show any sustained treatment for these conditions
nor does it indicate that these ailments in any way
significantly impaired the RFC of Plaintiff. (R-50-51).
Plaintiff's record points to a difficult childhood -
Plaintiff's parents divorced when she was at a young age
and she lived with her grandparents following a complex
custody battle. (R-257). Though Plaintiff reported no sexual
or physical abuse, she does claim that she faced significant
verbal abuse at the hands of her grandfather whom she claimed
would yell often and hit the wall. (R-257). Plaintiff said
that her grandfather's temper put her in an anxious state
of mind. (R-257). Plaintiff possesses a tenth grade
education. (Tr. 55, 195-201, 204-05).
Estock, M.D., reviewed Plaintiff's medical records for
the State Agency on April 24, 2012, and found that
Plaintiff's mental and physical condition only caused
“moderate” restrictions on her day-to-day
activities with no episodes of de-compensation. (R-305-06).
Dr. Estock noted Plaintiff has some problems with memory,
concentration, and understanding along with swelling in the
feet and constant pain. (R-305-06). He opined that Plaintiff
may experience limitations on social interactions but would
face no significant limitations when it came to work-related
decisions or the ability to follow instructions. (R-307-09).
under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the
claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial work
activity” is work activity that involves doing
significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1572(a). “Gainful work activity” is work that
is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b). If
the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial
gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ must determine
whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment
or a combination of medical impairments that significantly
limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work
activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such
impairment, the claimant may not claim disability.
Id. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the
claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the
criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. If such criteria are
met, the claimant is declared disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be
declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still
find disability under the next two steps of the analysis. The
ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”), which refers to the
claimant's ability to work despite her impairments. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). In the fourth step, the ALJ
determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past
relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the
claimant is determined to be capable of performing past
relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled.
Id. If the ALJ finds the claimant unable to perform
past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth
and final step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In the
last part of the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the
claimant is able to perform any other work commensurate with
her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the
claimant to the ALJ to prove the existence, in significant
numbers, of jobs in the national economy that the claimant
can do given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c).
the ALJ found that Plaintiff has performed no substantial
gainful activity since December 11, 2011 and has a
combination of the following “severe”
impairments: hypertension, morbid obesity, panic disorder
with agoraphobia, and depression. (R-49). These findings
satisfy the first two steps of the process. The ALJ then
found that Plaintiff did not “have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the
severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart B, Appendix 1.” (R-51). The ALJ reached this
conclusion based on the lack of opinions on the record from
medical experts which would support a diagnosis matching the
listings. (R-51). The ALJ also noted that, despite the fact
that by law, obesity can exacerbate an associated impairment
to the point of meeting a listing, no medical evidence exists
to demonstrate that Plaintiff's obesity actually affects
her other ailments. (R-51).
further determined that, based on the record, Plaintiff
possesses the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20
C.F.R. § 416.967 (b). (R-54). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff's conditions would not significantly impair her
ability to “occasionally climb ramps and stairs,
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.” (R-54).
Plaintiff maintains the ability to perform jobs with limited
requirements for complex mental functions and limited
memorization according to the ALJ. (R-54). The ALJ further
holds that Plaintiff can retain and follow “simple
instructions” and maintain limited contact with others
provided she can avail herself of breaks every two-hours.
(R-54). Based on the testimony of the Vocational Expert along
with the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ determined
that Plaintiff could hold jobs such as laundry worker,
cleaner, and dishwasher, of which there exist 184, 000, 220,
000, and 272, 000 national jobs respectively. (R-55-56).
Thus, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff could partake in
substantial gainful activity and determined that she did not
meet the requirements necessary to claim SSI benefits.
Plaintiff's Argument for Reversal
counsel, who was reatined following the ALJ's decision,
offers four arguments for reversal. (See generally
Doc. #9). First, she argues that the ALJ failed to accord
proper weight to the opinion of Dr. Bentley, the consulting
psychologist for the Commissioner. Second, she asserts that
the Appeals Council failed to consider Dr. Wilson's
report dated after the ALJ's decision. Third, she
contends that the ALJ decision was ...