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Macon v. Berryhill

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

March 5, 2018

TERESA MACON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Teresa Macon seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Macon's claims for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. After careful review, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Macon applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits and, supplemental security income on February 20, 2013. (Doc. 6-5, pp. 2-3). Ms. Macon alleges that her disability began on September 15, 2012. (Doc. 6-5, pp. 2-3). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Macon's claims on May 31, 2013. (Doc. 6-5, pp. 2-3). Ms. Macon requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-6, p. 2). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 30, 2014. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 11-24). On April 29, 2016, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Macon's request for review (Doc. 6-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 factual 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 evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         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).

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         To determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Macon has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 6-4, p. 13). The ALJ determined that Ms. Macon suffers from the following severe impairments: insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, hypertension, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and status post left nephrectomy. (Doc. 6-4, p. 13). The ALJ concluded that Ms. Macon has the following non-severe impairments: depression, hyperlipidemia, and lumbago. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 14-16). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Macon does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 16-18).

         In light of Ms. Macon's impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Macon's residual functional capacity or RFC. The ALJ determined that Ms. Macon has the RFC to perform:

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that she can engage in no more than frequent pushing/pulling with the bilateral lower extremities; she is precluded from climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds; she is precluded from concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, or pulmonary irritants; she is precluded work around unprotected heights; and she should avoid hazardous moving machinery.

(Doc. 6-4, p. 18).

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Macon is not able to perform her past relevant work as a store laborer, poultry deboner, hand packager, teacher's aide, or cashier. (Doc. 6-4, p. 22). Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Macon can perform, including telephone quotation clerk, charge account clerk, and addressing clerk. (Doc. 6-4, p. 23). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Macon has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-4, p. 24).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Macon argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because the Appeals Council failed to properly consider new evidence, the ALJ did not properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence, the ALJ did not consider all of Ms. Macon's impairments or combination of impairments, and the ALJ did not properly evaluate Ms. Macon's subjective complaints of pain.

         A. Ms. Macon's New Evidence Does Not Warrant Remand.

         While her case was pending before the Appeals Council, Ms. Macon submitted additional evidence for the Appeals Council's review, including treatment notes from visits to CED Mental Health dated December 11, 2014 through January 13, 2016. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 9-29, 33-53). Ms. Macon argues that the Appeals Council erroneously failed to consider this new evidence that post-dates the ALJ's May 30, 2014 decision. (Doc. 8, pp. 20-31; Doc. 10, pp. 1-4).

         “‘With a few exceptions, a claimant is allowed to present new evidence at each stage of the administrative process, ' including before the Appeals Council.” Washington v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 806 F.3d 1317, 1320 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Ingram v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1261 (11th Cir. 2007)). The Appeals Council must review evidence that is new, material, and chronologically relevant. Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1261. The Court reviews de novo whether supplemental evidence is new, material, and chronologically relevant. Washington, 806 F.3d at 1321.

         Ms. Macon contends that the Appeals Council did not consider whether her new evidence is chronologically relevant. (Doc. 8, p. 21). Her argument rests on this paragraph from the Appeals Council's decision:

We also looked at medical records from CED Mental Health dated December 11, 2014, through March 3, 2015 - 21 pages and medical records from CED Mental Health dated April 29, 2015, through January 13, 2016 - 21 pages. The Administrative Law Judge decided your case through October 30, 2014. This new information is about a later time. Therefore, it does not affect the decision about whether you were disabled begging on or before October 30, 2014.

(Doc. 8, p. 21) (quoting Doc. 6-3, p. 3) (emphasis in Appeals Council's decision). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a similar argument in Hargress v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, ___ F.3d ___, 2018 WL 1061567 (11th Cir. Feb. 27, 2018). The Eleventh Circuit stated:

the record does not support Hargress's claim that the Appeals Council refused to consider her new evidence-the medical records from Drs. Teschner and Sparks and from Trinity Medical Center dated after the ALJ's hearing decision-without considering whether it was chronologically relevant. The Appeals Council stated that the new records were “about a later time” than the ALJ's February 24, 2015 hearing decision and “[t]herefore” the new records did “not affect the decision about whether [Hargress was] disabled beginning on or before February 24, 2015.” In short, the Appeals Council declined to consider these new medical records because they were not chronologically relevant. The Appeals Council ...

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