United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
ANGELA M. KING, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
12, 2013, Plaintiff Angela M. King applied for supplemental
security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act,
alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2013.
King's applications were denied at the initial
administrative level. King then requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On November 14,
2014, the ALJ held a hearing and on April 21, 2015, he denied
King's claim. King requested a review of the ALJ's
decision by the Appeals Council, which denied her request on
September 9, 2016. As a result, the ALJ's decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (the “Commissioner”) as of
September 9, 2016.
case is now before the court for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Under 28 U.S.C. §
636(c)(1) and Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, the parties have consented to the full
jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate
Judge. Based on a careful review of the parties'
submissions, the relevant law, and the record as a whole, the
court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner is due
to be REVERSED and this matter REMANDED for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
court reviews a Social Security appeal to determine whether
the Commissioner's decision “is supported by
substantial evidence and based upon proper legal
standards.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436,
1439 (11th Cir. 1997). The court will reverse the
Commissioner's decision if it is convinced that the
decision was not supported by substantial evidence or that
the proper legal standards were not applied. Carnes v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). The
court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the
evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner, ” but rather “must defer to the
Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial
evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400
(11th Cir. 1997) (citation and internal quotation marks
omitted). “Even if the evidence preponderates against
the Secretary's factual findings, [the court] must affirm
if the decision reached is supported by substantial
evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520,
1529 (11th Cir. 1990). Moreover, reversal is not warranted
even if the court itself would have reached a result contrary
to that of the factfinder. See Edwards v. Sullivan,
937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991).
substantial evidence standard is met “if a reasonable
person would accept the evidence in the record as adequate to
support the challenged conclusion.” Holladay v.
Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1208 (11th Cir. 1988) (quoting
Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1209 (11th Cir.
1983)). The requisite evidentiary showing has been described
as “more than a scintilla, but less than a
preponderance.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703
F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). The court must scrutinize
the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the
decision and cannot “act as [an] automaton in
reviewing the [Commissioner's] decision.” Hale
v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). Thus,
the court must consider evidence both favorable and
unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision. Swindle
v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 222, 225 (11th Cir. 1990).
court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary
review if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to
provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that
the Commissioner properly applied the law. Id.
(citing Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human
Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)). There is
no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of law
are valid. Id.
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show the
“inability to 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); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). A physical or mental
impairment is “an impairment that results from
anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities
which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(3). King bears the burden of proving that she is
disabled, and she is responsible for producing evidence to
support her claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d
1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).
determination of disability under the Social Security Act
requires a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a).
The Commissioner must determine in sequence:
(1) Is the claimant presently unable to engage in substantial
(2) Is the claimant's impairment(s) severe?
(3) Does the claimant's impairment(s) satisfy or
medically equal one of the specific impairments set forth in
20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the claimant unable to perform her former occupation?
(5) Is the claimant unable to perform other work given her
residual functional capacity, age, education, and work
See Frame v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 596 F.
App'x 908, 910 (11th Cir. 2015). “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) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)-(f)). “Once the finding is made that a
claimant cannot return to prior work the burden of proof
shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can
do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th
Cir.1995) (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 762 F.2d 1516
(11th Cir. 1985)).
FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
was 37 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. R.
105. She is single with three children, but lives without her
children in a boarding house for people with developmental
disabilities in Montgomery, Alabama. R. 64. She did not
complete high school but attended special education classes
through the eleventh grade. R. 48-49. She claims to suffer
from schizophrenia, depression, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
R. 46. In the past, King worked as a cashier, an assembler, a
cook, and a poultry worker. R. 37, 89, 215 & 217. She
last worked as an assembler at STS Filing and at a
chicken-processing plant in 2012. R. 32 & 203.
an administrative hearing, the ALJ found that King did not
suffer from any severe impairments in isolation, but that the
following combination of her impairments is “possibly
severe” under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c):
“status post hydrothermal endometrial ablation and
questionable Fibromyalgia, questionable schizophrenia,
paranoid type; generalized anxiety disorder, not otherwise
specified; dissociative disorder, not otherwise specified;
and depressive disorder, not otherwise specified (20 CFR
416.920(c)).” R. 28. However, the ALJ concluded at step
three of the analysis that King's impairments, even in
combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of
any of the impairments listed in the applicable regulations.
R. 29. The ALJ further found, at steps four and five, that
King has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
to perform light work, 
except the claimant can stand and/or walk at least two hours
without interruption and a total of at least six hours over
the course of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can sit at
least two hours without interruption and a total of at least
six hours over the course of an eight-hour workday. The
claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, poles or scaffolds. The
claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The
claimant can frequently use her upper extremities for
reaching overhead. The claimant can frequently use her lower
extremities for pushing, pulling and the operation of foot
controls. The claimant can frequently balance, stoop, kneel
and crouch. The claimant can occasionally crawl. The claimant
can occasionally work in humidity, wetness, and extreme
temperatures. The claimant cannot work in poorly ventilated
areas. The claimant cannot work at unprotected heights. The
claimant cannot work with operating hazardous machinery. The
claimant can frequently work while exposed to vibration. The
claimant cannot operate motor vehicles. The claimant can
perform simple, routine and repetitive work activity with the
following exceptions. The claimant cannot perform work
activity that requires her response to rapid and/or frequent
multiple demands. The claimant can respond appropriately to
supervision; however, she is better suited for and can
perform work activity requiring only occasional supervision.
The claimant can frequently interact with coworkers so long
as interaction is casual. The claimant is limited to work
activity that does not require interaction with the public.
R. 30. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that King could perform
both her past relevant work as an assembler and other jobs
that exist in the national economy. R. 37. He therefore
concluded that King was not disabled within the meaning of
the Social Security Act from June 12, 2013 through the date
of his decision, and he denied King's claim. R. 38.
7, 2014, Sreelekha Banerjee, M.D., King's treating
physician, completed a report of his opinions regarding
King's limitations. Overall, Dr. Banerjee observed that
King's limitations with regard to several areas of mental
functioning were “extreme, ” which is defined as
a “complete loss of ability in the named
activity” such that the individual “cannot
sustain performance during an 8-hour workday.” R.
344-45. Dr. Banerjee indicated that King's limitations
were extreme in the following categories of functioning:
impaired ability to relate to others; restriction of
activities of daily living; and the ability to maintain
concentration, pace, and attention for periods of at least
two hours. R. 344. Dr. Banerjee also observed that King's
limitations were extreme with respect to her ability to
follow directions, respond appropriately with supervisors and
coworkers, handle customary work pressures, respond
appropriately to changes in the work environment, and use
good judgment on the job. R. 344. Finally, Dr. Banerjee found
that King suffered extreme limitations in performing complex,
repetitive, or varied tasks and behaving in an emotionally
stable manner. R. 345. Ultimately, Dr. Banerjee diagnosed
King with schizophrenia, paranoid type; depressive disorder;
and generalized anxiety disorder. See R. 343.
Banerjee regularly treated King at the Montgomery Area Mental
Health Authority. On May 17, 2013, Dr. Banerjee noted that
King was “doing well” with the psychotropic
medications she was prescribed, but that she was having
trouble sleeping. R. 288. Otherwise, King reported no side
effects from her medication, no hallucinations or paranoia,
and no suicidal or homicidal ideation. R. 288. Similarly,
King had no side effects, delusions, paranoia, or suicidal or
homicidal ideations in February of 2013, although Dr.
Banerjee did record that her insight was “poor”
and her judgment “impaired.” R. 290.
August 22, 2013, Dr. Alan M. Babb examined King at his office
in Montgomery. R. 303. Dr. Babb had not been provided with
any of King's prior medical records, but noted that she
reported having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. R. 303.
Most of Dr. Babb's physical findings were unremarkable,
though he recorded that King was “very reserved,
withdrawn, and depressed.” R. 304. Dr. Babb's
impressions included a psychiatric disorder, depression, and
an anxiety disorder. R. 305. He concluded by stating that
King's case would “be judged on psychiatric reasons
and not for any specific medical reasons” and that the
mental health records “need to be obtained to be able
to give a clearer and precise history of what mental health
issues [King] has and what their expectations are.” R.
days later, on August 24, King was referred to Dr. Kristin R.
Tubre, a licensed clinical psychologist. R. 309. Dr. Tubre
first noted that King “may not have put forth adequate
effort” and might have “exaggerated her
symptoms” during her examination and interview. R. 309.
Therefore, Dr. Tubre's findings with regard to King's
level of functioning should be “interpreted with
caution.” R. 309. King reported to Dr. Tubre that she
was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2012 and had
hallucinations, crying spells, isolation, paranoia, and a
split personality. R. 310. Her hallucinations included a
person named “Christine” and several small
children. R. 310. King spoke to them during the interview. R.
310. She reported that her psychotropic medications did not
decrease the hallucinations and that her medications caused
her to be lethargic. R. 310. King reported having been
sexually abused by her father as a child, as she also
reported to both Dr. Babb and Dr. Banerjee. R. 310. King
stated that she lived with a “male friend” who
helped her care for herself, and that she depended
“heavily on her friend for assistance with hygiene and
food.” R. 311. She nevertheless testified at the
hearing that she lived at a boarding house for people with
developmental disabilities, that the male friend did not live
with her, and that only her family cared for her. R. 74.
Tubre found that King's “thought processes were not
within normal limits, ” and that she displayed
difficulty with thought content and interpreting proverbial
statements. R. 311. She also struggled with attention and
concentration and with spelling certain words forward and
backward. R. 311. Her short-term memory was
“impaired” and her “level of cognitive
ability appeared to be in the borderline range of
intellectual functioning.” R. 312. Dr. Tubre noted
that, during the examination, King's mood fluctuated and
she reported experiencing both auditory and visual
hallucinations. R. 312. Ultimately, Dr. Tubre concluded that,
despite the fact that King may have exaggerated her symptoms,
she is “moderately to severely impaired” in her
ability to comprehend, remember, and carry out instructions
as well as to “respond appropriately to supervision,
co-workers and work pressures in a work setting.” R.
312. Her diagnostic impressions where that King had
paranoid-type schizophrenia and fibromyalgia. R. 312. Dr.
Tubre concluded by recommending additional psychological
testing “to rule out malingering.” R. 312.
also saw Dr. Albert Lester in 2013 and 2014. These records,
however, are almost entirely illegible, with the exception of
a few individual words. See R. 348-54. Thus, the
court is able to discern little of significance from Dr.
Lester's treatment notes, and encourages King's
counsel to submit records that are legible (and preferably
typewritten) in the future to aid the court in its review. In
her brief, King represents to the court that Dr. Lester
diagnosed her with fibromyalgia and prescribed Lortab and
Lyrica to treat her pain. See Doc. 12 at 5-6.
presents three issues on appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred by
improperly acting as both judge and physician; (2) that the
ALJ failed to provide King with a full, fair, and unbiased
evaluation of her claim; and (3) that the Appeals Council
erred by denying King's request for review in light of
the additional medical evidence she submitted. Because the
court agrees with each of ...