United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Chandler, the claimant, protectively filed a Title II
application for disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI
application for supplemental security income on June 30,
2014. (R. 22, 244-256). In both applications, the claimant
alleged an onset date of September 30, 2013. (R. 22, 251).
The Commissioner denied the claims on October 10, 2014, and
the claimant filed a written request for a hearing on
December 12, 2014. (R. 170, 175, 41-42). The Administrative
Law Judge held a video hearing on August 31, 2016. (R. 96).
In a decision dated January 12, 2017, the ALJ found that the
claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security
Act, and was, therefore, ineligible for social security
the ALJ's decision, the claimant appealed to the Appeals
Council and submitted additional evidence, including medical
records from Dr. Steven Knighten and a psychological
evaluation from Dr. David Wilson. On September 25, 2017, the
Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review.
(R. 1). In this denial, the Appeals Council stated that it
declined to review the medical records from Dr. Knighten
because the evidence did not show a reasonable probability
that it would change the outcome of the
decision. (R. 2). Additionally, the Appeals Council
declined to review the evidence from Dr. Wilson because it
did not relate to the period at issue. (R. 2). Consequently,
the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The
claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and this
court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§
405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, this
court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.
claimant presents the following issues for appeal:
1. whether the Appeals Council properly declined to review
evidence that the claimant submitted after the ALJ hearing;
2. whether substantial evidence supports the reasons the ALJ
gave little weight to Dr. Fleming's consultative
3. whether sufficient evidence exists in the record for the
ALJ to properly determine that the claimant could perform her
past work as a housekeeper; and
4. whether the vocational expert's testimony provides
substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding that
jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can
STANDARD OF REVIEW
standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is
limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if he
applied the correct legal standards and if substantial
evidence supports his factual conclusions. See 42
U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d
1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826
F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir.1987).
. . . presumption of validity attaches to the [ALJ's]
legal conclusions, including determination of the proper
standards to be applied in evaluating claims.”
Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review
the ALJ's factual determinations de novo. The
court will affirm those factual determinations that are
supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial
evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It
means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971).
court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a
claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a
claimant's residual functional capacity, and the
application of vocational factors “are not medical
opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved
to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings
that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the
determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant
meets a Listing and is qualified for Social Security
disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and
the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the
evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the
Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to
disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain
facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long
as substantial evidence in the record supports it.
court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to
determine the reasonableness of the [ALJ]'s factual
findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A
reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the
record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must
view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence
that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ.
Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir.
few exceptions, a claimant is allowed to present new evidence
at each stage of the administrative process. Washington
v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 806 F.3d 1317, 1320
(11th Cir. 2015); See also 20C.F.R. §
404.900(b). When the claimant submits evidence to the Appeals
Council that is “new, material, and chronologically
relevant, ” the Appeals Council must consider it.
Id. When the Appeals Council erroneously refuses to
consider evidence, it commits legal error and remand is
appropriate. Id. at 1321. Whether evidence meets the
new, materially, and chronologically relevant standard is a
question of law subject to de novo review. Id.
evidence that the Appeals Council should consider is evidence
that is non-cumulative. Clough v. Soc. Sec. Admin.,
Comm'r, 636 Fed.Appx. 496, 498 (11th Cir. 2016)
(holding that evidence was not new where a post-hearing
evaluation included the same diagnoses as those of
pre-hearing evaluations). Evidence is material if a
reasonable possibility exists that the evidence would change
the administrative result. Washington, 806 F.3d at
1321. Finally, medical examinations that are conducted after
an ALJ's decision may still be chronologically relevant
if they relate back to a time on or before the ALJ's
decision. Hunter v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r,
705 Fed.Appx. 936, 940 (11th Cir. 2017).
the Weight Given to Physicians' Opinions
must make clear the weight accorded to each item of evidence
and the reasons for the decision so that the reviewing court
may determine whether the decision is based on substantial
evidence. See Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). The failure to
specifically articulate that weight is a reversible error.
Cowart v. Schweiker, 662 F.2d 731, 735 (11th Cir.
1981). When evaluating such evidence, the ALJ must give
“substantial weight” to the opinion of the
claimant's treating physician “unless good cause
exists for not heeding to the treating physician's
diagnosis.” Edward v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580,
583 (11th Cir. 1991); See also 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c)(2) (“Generally, we give more weight to
medical opinions from . . . treating sources, since these
sources are likely to be . . . able to provide a detailed,
longitudinal picture of your medical impairment(s) and may
bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that
cannot be obtained from . . . individual examinations, such
as consultative examinations or brief
hospitalizations.”). The ALJ may reject the opinion of
any physician when the evidence supports a contrary
conclusion. Skyrock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835
(11th Cir. 1985).
Whether a Claimant Can Perform Past Relevant Work
claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to
perform her past relevant work. Schnorr v. Bowen,
816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987). However, the ALJ has an
obligation to develop a full and fair record. Id.
“Where there is no evidence of the physical
requirements and demands of the claimant's past work and
no detailed description of the required duties was solicited
or proffered, . . . [the ALJ] cannot properly determine
whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform his past relevant work. Id. The record must
contain detailed information about strength, endurance,
manipulative ability, mental demands and other job
requirements. SSR 82-62, 1982 WL 31386 at *3; See also
Lucas v. Sullivan, 918 F.2d 1567, 1574 n.3 (11th Cir.
1990) (noting that to support a conclusion that the claimant
can return to his or her past work, “the ALJ must
consider all the duties of that work and evaluate [his or]
her ability to perform them in spite of [the claimant's]
impairments”). Statements by the claimant regarding her
past work are generally sufficient. Id. Finally, in
making this determination, the ALJ may use the testimony of a
vocational expert. Hanes v. Comm'r Soc. Sec.
Admin., 130 Fed.Appx. 343, 346 (11th Cir. 2005).
a Vocational Expert's Testimony as Substantial
may rely on the testimony of a vocational expert to establish
that the claimant has the ability to adjust to other work in
the national economy. Ritcher v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 379 Fed.Appx. 959, 960 (11th Cir. 2010). When
relying on such testimony, the ALJ must pose hypothetical
questions to the vocational expert that encompass all of the
claimant's impairments. Id. If the ALJ presents
the vocational expert with an inadequate hypothetical, the
vocational expert's testimony will not constitute
substantial evidence. Jacobs v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 520 Fed.Appx. 948, 950 (11th Cir. 2013). While not
every symptom need be found in the ALJ's hypothetical,
all of the claimant's impairments must be included for
the vocational expert's testimony to constitute
substantial evidence. Ritcher, 379 Fed.Appx. at 960.
Hypotheticals that “implicitly account” for the
claimant's limitations are sufficient. Winschel,
631 F.3d at 1181.
claimant was thirty-seven years old on the date of the
ALJ's decision; has a high school education; and has past
work as a housekeeper, painter, landscape laborer, and
server. (R. 121, 272, 286).
and Physical Impairments
February 28, 2012, the claimant visited Dr. Paul Oleary at
Capitol Care Mental Health Consult. At this time, the
claimant was taking the following medications: Buspar,
Celexa, Lamictal, Abilify, and Neurontin. The claimant stated
that she was doing well on her medications, and that she had
not had any issues with depression, paranoid thoughts,
sleeping, or weight gain. However, the claimant stated that
she was having some issues focusing, and that she saw a man
in the corner of her room that said her name. Dr. Oleary
diagnosed the claimant with mood disorder, borderline
personality disorder, and ADHD. (R. 808-809).
months later, the claimant returned to Dr. Oleary on May 12,
2012 and stated that she was doing “terrible.”
The claimant stated that she had felt overwhelmed, tired from
a lack of sleep, depressed, and unmotivated for the last two
days; however, she also stated that she had not taken her
medicine the last two days. Dr. Oleary explained the
importance of taking medication regularly. Additionally, the
claimant stated that she was doing “good” and had
no problems prior to not taking her medication. Dr. Oleary
suggested that the claimant return in one month and did not
make any changes to her medication. (R. 798-799).
one month later, on June 11, 2012, the claimant returned to
Dr. Oleary complaining that her mind was “going in a
number of different directions.” The claimant also
stated that she felt confused, disorganized, and anxious but
that she had not taken her medication for the past two days.
Dr. Oleary reiterated the importance of taking medicine
regularly and told the claimant to take her Neurontin three
times per day instead of twice per day to help with anxiety.
claimant followed up with Dr. Oleary on July 10, 2012 and
stated that she still felt disorganized and confused. The
claimant also stated that she sometimes heard voices and felt
depressed but not suicidal. Dr. Oleary increased the
milligrams in the claimant's Lamictal medication and took
the claimant off of Abilify because of her weight gain. (R.
October 10, 2012, the client visited Dr. Oleary to develop a
plan for her anxiety. A few days later, on October 15, 2012,
she returned and stated that she continued to have anxiety
issues. However, she also stated that taking time
“working on herself, ” one of the suggestions in
her anxiety plan, along with her medications helped
significantly. Finally, the claimant did not report any
depression, paranoid thoughts, or suicidal or homicidal
ideation. Dr. Oleary noted no evidence of hallucinations. (R.
claimant visited to Dr. Lee Carter on December 27, 2012 at
the Autauga Medical Clinic, LLC regarding her ADD symptoms
and anxiety. The claimant stated that she had taken Adderall
in the past, but that she had not taken the medication in the
last fifteen months; that she had been sleep talking and
moving things around in her house; and that she would often
fall asleep immediately. Dr. Carter diagnosed the claimant
with ADHD, episodic mood disorder, and anxiety; he also
prescribed the claimant Ceftin 500mg, Flagyl 500mg, and
Vyvanse 30mg. (R. 405-409).
February 25, 2013, the claimant returned to Dr. Carter for a
follow-up regarding her ADHD and weigh gain. Dr. Carter cited
the claimant's ADHD as improving since her last visit.
Dr. Carter also noted that the claimant was oriented; that
her speech was fluent and words were clear; that her thought
processes were coherent; that her mood was neutral; and that
she was hyper with pressured speech and could not sit still.
claimant saw Dr. Carter on May 23, 2013 for a checkup and
prescription refills. The claimant stated that she was
pregnant; that she was stressed and depressed about her
pregnancy; and that she was having problems managing her
anxiety. Dr. Carter informed the claimant about the risks of
taking medications while pregnant. However, the claimant
wanted to proceed against Dr. Carter's advice. Dr. Carter
refilled Lamictal, Neurontin, Buspar, Lexapro 20mg, Vyvanse,
and added a prescription Abilify. (R. 445-449).
Carter saw the claimant again on June 26, 2013 for a checkup
and refills on June 26, 2013. The claimant complained about
headaches, stress, and depression because of her pregnancy.
Dr. Carter spoke with the claimant for thirty minutes about
the risks of continuing her medication while pregnant; the
claimant stated that she did not want to stop taking her
medication because, without it, she might ...