United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND
Calvin Eugene Brown, commenced this action on December 5,
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 his claim for a
period of disability, disability insurance, and supplemental
security income benefits.
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).
contends that the Commissioner's decision is neither
supported by substantial evidence nor in accordance with
applicable legal standards. Specifically, claimant asserts
that: (1) the ALJ erred by failing to make a credibility
finding; (2) the Appeals Council erred by failing to find
that newly submitted evidence would have changed the
administrative decision; (3) the ALJ improperly considered
the opinions of the consultative examiners; (4) the ALJ
failed to apply Grid Rule 201.12; and (5) the ALJ's
decision was not based upon substantial evidence. Upon review
of the record, the court concludes that claimant's second
contention has merit, and the case should be remanded to the
Commissioner for further consideration of the new evidence.
to the ALJ's administrative decision, claimant submitted
a March 17, 2016 letter from his primary care physician, Dr.
Ochuko Odjegba of Quality of Life Health Services, which
stated only: “To Whom It May Concern: Mr. Brown is
currently under my medical care. Due to his medical
conditions he is unable to gain and keep employment. If you
have any questions or concerns please call my office at
[telephone number omitted]. Thank you.” The ALJ
considered that letter but afforded it only little weight,
While the determination of an individual's residual
functional capacity and the ultimate question of disability
are issues reserved to the Commissioner, treating physicians
can offer opinions regarding their patients' ability to
engage in certain work-related activities. In this case, Dr.
Odjegba merely offered a conclusory statement, which is not
entitled to any special significance. The undersigned further
notes that the type and pattern of treatment Dr. Odjegba has
provided is inconsistent with a finding of disability.
has not challenged the ALJ's treatment of Dr.
Odjegba's March 17, 2016 letter. Instead, claimant
submitted to the Appeals Council a Physical Capacities Form
completed by Dr. Odjegba on December 22, 2016. On the
one-page form, Dr. Odjegba indicated that claimant could sit
upright in a standard chair for fifteen minutes at a time,
and stand for fifteen minutes at a time. During an eight-hour
day, claimant would have to lie down, sleep, or sit with his
legs propped at waist level or above for five hours. In
addition to normal workday breaks, claimant could be expected
to be off-task for eighty percent of the time during a normal
work day. During a thirty-day period, claimant could be
expected to fail to report to work more than fifteen days as
a result of his medical conditions. Claimant could
occasionally lift up to twenty pounds, but he could never
lift more than twenty pounds. Dr. Odjegba stated that
claimant's limitations were caused by severe back pain,
and that claimant experienced sedation as a side effect of
his medications. Claimant's limitations existed as far
back as September 24, 2014,  and they could be expected to
last twelve months or more.
Appeals Council did not consider Dr. Odjegba's Physical
Capacities Form, and did not make it part of the
administrative record. The Appeals Council reasoned that,
even though the form related back to September 24, 2014,
which was prior to the ALJ's December 5, 2016
administrative decision, it did not “show a reasonable
probability that it would change the outcome of the
decision.” Claimant now contends that the Appeals
Council erred by failing to consider the form.
When a claimant submits new evidence to the AC
[i.e., the Appeals Council], 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). Moreover, new
evidence should be considered if there is a reasonable
possibility that it would have changed the administrative
result. Washington v. Social Security
Administration, Commissioner, 806 F.3d 1317, 1321 (11th
true that Dr. Odjegba's Physical Capacities Form
describes a severely disabled individual. But the Appeals
Council was not necessarily required to credit Dr.
Odjegba's statements, even though they came from a
treating physician. The opinion of a treating physician
“must be given substantial or considerable weight
unless ‘good cause' is shown to the
contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d
1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted).
Good cause exists when “(1) [the] treating
physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence;
(2) [the] evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the]
treating physician's opinion was conclusory or
inconsistent with the doctor's own medical
records.” Id. (alterations supplied).
Additionally, the ALJ is not required to accept a conclusory
statement from a medical source, even a treating source, that
a claimant is unable to work, because the decision whether a
claimant is disabled is not a medical opinion, but is a
decision “reserved to the Commissioner.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d).
Security regulations also provide that, in considering what
weight to give any medical opinion (regardless of
whether it is from a treating or non-treating physician), the
Commissioner should evaluate: the extent of the examining or
treating relationship between the doctor and patient; whether
the doctor's opinion can be supported by medical signs
and laboratory findings; whether the opinion is consistent
with the record as a whole; the doctor's specialization;
and other factors. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c), 416.927(d). See also Wheeler v.
Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir. 1986)
(“The weight afforded a physician's conclusory
statements depends upon the extent to which they are
supported by clinical or laboratory findings and are
consistent with other evidence as to claimant's
Commissioner asserts that the Appeals Council was justified
in refusing to consider Dr. Odjegba's form because the
form essentially was no different from Dr. Odjegba's
previous conclusory statement that claimant was unable to
gain and keep employment. The court disagrees with that
assertion because the Physical Capacities Form provides much
more detail about claimant's functional abilities than
Dr. Odjegba's earlier conclusory opinion. The
Commissioner also asserts that the severe limitations noted
the Physical Capacities Form are unsupported by any physical
findings. Claimant saw Dr. Odjegba from March 2015 to May
2016. He reported back pain with radiation on March 17, 2015,
and the pain had worsened by May 28, 2015. He next reported
chronic back pain on January 21, 2016, and worsening of the
pain on March 17, 2016. Throughout his treatment by Dr.
Odjegba, claimant was prescribed medication for back pain and
muscle spasms. Records from another treatment provider at
Quality of Life Health Services reflect that claimant began
reporting back pain, joint swelling, muscle weakness, and
tenderness to palpitation in his lower back in September
2014, and that he was continually prescribed medications to
treat the pain and muscle spasms. The physicians'
observations of joint swelling, muscle weakness, tenderness
to palpitation, and radiating pain constitute clinical
findings to support the limitations assessed on Dr.
summary, the court concludes that Dr. Odjegba's Physical
Capacities Form was sufficiently material to the disability
determination to at least warrant consideration by the
Appeals Council. Accordingly, the decision of the
Commissioner is reversed, and this action is REMANDED to the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration for
further consideration of Dr. Odjegba's Physical
Capacities Form, further evaluation of the limitations