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Hunter v. Colvin

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

January 24, 2017

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



         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Proceedings Below

         Plaintiff 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. (R-153).

         In his 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).

         John 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. (R-51-52).

         The 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 anxiety. (R-373).

         Plaintiff's 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).

         Robert 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).

         II. ALJ Decision

         Disability 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the 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).

         Here, 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).

         The ALJ 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. (R-56).

         III. Plaintiff's Argument for Reversal

         Plaintiff's 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 ...

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