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Miller v. Saul

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

September 20, 2019

VALERIE TALLEY MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Valerie Talley Miller brings this action pursuant to § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, seeking review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner’s (the “Commissioner”) final decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Based on the court’s review of the administrative record and the parties’ briefs, the court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal standards and that substantial evidence supports her decision, which has become the decision of the Commissioner. As a result, the court WILL AFFIRM the decision denying benefits.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Miller applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on February 16, 2011. (R. at 264–65). The Social Security Administration (the “SSA”) found Ms. Miller disabled as defined by the Act beginning on February 11, 2011, and awarded Ms. Miller disability benefits. (Id. at 68–73).

         In 2016, the SSA conducted a continuing disability review to determine whether Ms. Miller had experienced medical improvement. (R. at 152–53). The SSA determined that medical improvement had occurred and that Ms. Miller’s disability ended on December 17, 2014. (Id.). Ms. Miller requested a hearing before an ALJ, who in 2017 determined that Ms. Miller’s disability had, in fact, ceased on December 17, 2014, and that Ms. Miller was not disabled as of August 31, 2016. (Id. at 18–30). Ms. Miller then sought review by the Appeals Council, which denied Ms. Miller’s request for review. (Id. at 1). The Appeals Council’s denial of review makes the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner, and the decision is ripe for the court’s judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court “must determine whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards.” Winschel v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “Under the substantial evidence standard, this court will affirm the ALJ’s decision if there is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” Henry v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178). The court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quotation marks and citation omitted). The court must affirm “[e]ven if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings.” Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158– 59 (11th Cir. 2004) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Despite the deferential standard for review of claims, the court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Henry, 802 F.3d at 1267 (quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)). The court must reverse the Commissioner’s decision if the ALJ does not apply the correct legal standards. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145–46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. THE ALJ’S DECISIONS

         The ALJ’s 2012 decision granting a period of disability and disability insurance benefits found that Ms. Miller had two severe medically determinable impairments: seizure disorder and “status post 1995 viral encephalitis with residual short-term memory loss.” (R. at 70). Given these impairments and their effect on her residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that Ms. Miller was unable to perform her past relevant work or any other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Id. at 71–72).

         In 2017, another ALJ determined that Ms. Miller’s disability had ended. To make that determination, an ALJ must follow an eight-step sequential evaluation process considering:

(1) whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or equal a listed impairment; (3) if not, whether there has been medical improvement; (4) if so, whether the improvement is related to the claimant’s ability to work; (5) if there is no medical improvement or if medical improvement is not related to the claimant’s ability to work, whether an exception to medical improvement applies; (6) if there is medical improvement related to the claimant’s ability to work or if an exception applies, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (7) if so, whether the claimant can perform his past relevant work; and (8) if not, whether the claimant can perform other work.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1)–(8).

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Miller’s disability had ended as of August 31, 2016. (R. at 30). First, the ALJ found that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date her disability ended. (Id. at 20). Next, the ALJ found that Ms. Miller still has the same two severe medically determinable impairments as in 2012 (seizure disorder and “status post viral encephalitis in 1995 with residual short-term memory loss”), as well as a severe medically determinable impairment in the form of obesity. (Id.). The ALJ also found that Ms. Miller has non-severe medically determinable impairments in the form of abdominal pain, sinusitis, and ‚Äústatus post bariatric ...


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