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Chandler v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2019





         Penny 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 benefits. (R.34).

         After 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.[1] (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.


         The 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 examination;
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 perform.


         The 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).

         “No . . . 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).

         The 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.

         The 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. 1986).


         Reviewing Post-Hearing Evidence

         With a 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.

         New 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).

         Articulating the Weight Given to Physicians' Opinions

         The ALJ 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).

         Determining Whether a Claimant Can Perform Past Relevant Work

         The 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).

         Using a Vocational Expert's Testimony as Substantial Evidence

         An ALJ 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.

         V. FACTS

         The 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).

         Mental and Physical Impairments

         On 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).

         A few 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).

         Approximately 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. (R. 788-790).

         The 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. 778-779).

         On 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. 760-761).

         The 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).

         On 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. (R. 395-399).

         The 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).

         Dr. 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 ...

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