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Painter v. Berryhill

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

June 8, 2018

CORTNEY PAINTER, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND

         Claimant, Cortney Painter, commenced this action on September 9, 2017, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and thereby denying her claim for child disability benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

         The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983).

         Claimant contends that the Commissioner's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically, claimant asserts that the ALJ's hypothetical question to the vocational expert failed to include all of her limitations, and that new evidence submitted for the first time to the Appeals Council (“AC”) should have changed the administrative decision. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that claimant's second contention has merit, and the file should be remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration of the new evidence.

When a claimant submits new evidence to the AC, the district court must consider the entire record, including the evidence submitted to the AC, to determine whether the denial of benefits was erroneous. Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1262. Remand is appropriate when a district court fails to consider the record as a whole, including evidence submitted for the first time to the AC, in determining whether the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Id. at 1266-67. The new evidence must relate back to the time period on or before the date of the ALJ's decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.970(b).

Smith v. Astrue, 272 Fed.Appx. 789, 802 (11th Cir. 2008) (alteration and emphasis supplied). The Eleventh Circuit has “recognized that medical opinions based on treatment occurring after the date of the ALJ's decision may be chronologically relevant.” Washington v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner, 806 F.3d 1317, 1322-23 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Boyd v. Heckler, 704 F.2d 1207, 1211 (11th Cir. 1983)) (emphasis supplied). For example, a treatment provider may be aware that a claimant's current medical condition also existed before the administrative decision, or there may be evidence that the claimant's functional abilities did not decline during the period following the administrative decision. Washington, 806 F.3d at 1322; Clough v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner, 636 Fed.Appx. 496, 497-98 (11th Cir. 2016).

         The ALJ's administrative decision was issued September 29, 2016.[1] The first item of new evidence submitted by claimant to the Appeals Council was a May 16, 2017 letter from Cheyenne E. Whisenant, an adult out-patient therapist at Mountain Lakes Behavioral Healthcare. Ms. Whisenant stated:

Cortney's symptoms include extreme fear of water, sinks, bathtubs, and virtually anything else that water can flow from. She also has extreme, unexplainable emotional outbursts. Cortney has had significant auditory and visual hallucinations in the past which are reported as being episodes of having super human strength and destruction of her surroundings. Cortney reports being medication and treatment compliant. Cortney acknowledges that she loses control and has become dangerously violent toward others. Cortney has intense fears such as “the sink drain sucking her down into it.” This intense fear of water has caused significant impairment in client's daily functioning to include losing many of her teeth and dangerously poor hygiene. She has an extreme and intense abuse history and has a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder-depressive type.

Tr. 31.

         The second item of new evidence submitted by claimant to the Appeals Council is an undated letter from Martha Painter, claimant's grandmother and adoptive mother. Ms. Painter stated that the police had been called to their home for a welfare check due to claimant's out-of-control behavior, that claimant builds “nests” around herself with clothes, cans, and garbage, that claimant sometimes scratched and bruised her, that claimant cried uncontrollably after leaving her administrative hearing, and that claimant destroyed her washer, dryer, stove, and dishwasher. She also discussed claimant's various phobias, including water, riding in a car, bridges, loud noises, being where it is clean, having an empty sink, and having guests in her home.[2]

         The third piece of new evidence submitted by claimant to the Appeals Council is an undated letter from Naira Serian, a friend of Martha Painter's. Ms. Serian stated that, during the seven years she had known claimant,

there has been a significant decline in her status of functioning, socialization, and hygiene. She did graduate high school, but was unable to complete college course or interact with other students. She is abusive both verbally and physically to her grandmother. I have seen scratches and bruises on her grandmother with fingerprints. Self mutilation is noted at times with open sores noted frequently. Has had several teeth pulled under anesthesia due to anxiety/panic attacks and hostility toward dentist and assistants. She sleeps long periods of time through the day and stays on the computer at night. She is unable to follow instructions or complete simple tasks. Her grandmother now washes Cortney's hair and assists with her bath. She is unable to cook or clean (unsafe and forgetful). When tasked with getting a few groceries or household items with limited funds, she will return with junk food and/or toys and states they didn't have what you wanted. On rare occasions she would go to a movie alone or to a “My Little Pony” gathering. She is no longer able to do those things due to anxiety.

Tr. 34.

         The fourth item of new evidence is a May 16, 2017 letter from Clara Christopher, a Peer Advocate from an organization called “Disability Rights & Resources.” Ms. Christopher stated:

I met Cortney Painter on November 18, 2016. She was very withdrawn. She sat in the chair in a fetal position. It was 60 degrees outside and she had on a winter coat with a hood on her head. Her face was verily [sic] visible. She didn't talk, except to answer a few questions. The answers were one word. I explained our services. I told her about the Peer Support group that meets once a ...

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