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Hyde v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 30, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Susan Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Joseph Hyde, proceeding pro se, commenced this action on May 21, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner denying his applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income (“SSI”) payments.[2] See Doc. 1; R 63-78. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning May 1, 2013, due to severe shoulder and knee pain, pinched nerve in neck, sleep apnea, chest pain, inability to drive due to various pain, and migraine headaches. R. 264. An administrative hearing was held June 2, 2015, at which time plaintiff signed a waiver of his right to representation. See R. 85-89, 224, 226. In a decision dated November 10, 2015, the administrative law judge (ALJ) concluded that plaintiff was not disabled. R. 63-78. On January 17, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision after considering additional evidence. R. 21-26.

         Plaintiff challenges the decision of the Appeals Council on this appeal. Doc. 17. He asks the court to reverse the Commissioner’s decision and award benefits or, in the alternative, to remand this cause to the Commissioner under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Docs. 1 at 2; 17 at 3. This case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to entry of final judgment by the Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); see also Docs. 15, 16. For the reasons stated herein, and based upon its review of the record, the court finds that the Commissioner’s decision is due to be affirmed.


         The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A reviewing court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] decision for that of the [Commissioner].” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). In other words, this court is prohibited from reviewing the Commissioner’s findings of fact de novo, even where a preponderance of the evidence supports alternative conclusions.

         While the court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence, it reviews the ALJ’s legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ’s determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ’s application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         In his decision dated November 10, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of May 1, 2013. R. 65. The ALJ found that plaintiff has the severe impairments of obesity, osteoarthritis left knee, degenerative joint disease right shoulder, headache disorder, hypertension, and depression, but none of the impairments or combination of impairments met or medically equaled a listed impairment. R. 65-66. After considering plaintiff’s impairments, symptoms, and the record as a whole, the ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a limited range of light exertional work.[3] R. 68. With the assistance of VE testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work, but he could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 76-77. Upon that determination, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability from May 1, 2013, through the date of the decision. R. 78-79.

         Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ’s decision, asserting the ALJ did not have all of his records. R. 38. The Appeals Council granted plaintiff additional time to submit records, see R. 30, but eventually denied plaintiff’s request for review. R. 21-22. The decision of the Appeals Council is addressed more fully below.


         Plaintiff maintains that the Appeals Council did not receive or consider the evidence he submitted from Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority (MAMHA), and he attaches the records to his memorandum. See Docs. 17 at 2-3, 17-1. He contends that the Appeals Council should have considered these records, all of which predate the ALJ’s decision, because the records are new, material, and chronologically relevant.[4] Docs. 17 at 2-3. Citing provisions of 20 C.F.R. § 404.970, [5] plaintiff appears to argue that a remand for consideration of this evidence is warranted because he had “good cause” for not submitting the records earlier. Doc. 17 at 2-3. Plaintiff contends that good cause is shown because he has “been seriously ill and disabled as is shown by the opinion of the hearing officer and ha[s] not been able to obtain the services of an attorney.” Id. at 3.

         In response, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and the Appeals Council properly reviewed the evidence plaintiff submitted and determined it did not meet the requirements for remand. Doc. 19.

         In reply, plaintiff contends that the substantial evidence of record demonstrates that he was disabled, and he cites to nine medical records in support.[6] Plaintiff attaches to his reply the documents that postdate the date of the ALJ’s decision, which are imaging reports from December 2015 and January 2016 and notes from a doctor’s visit in December 2015 (identified at nos. 7-9 in n.6). Docs. 21-1, 21-2, 21-3. Citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.935(b), [7]plaintiff argues he has shown good cause for not previously submitting “definitive proof of his disability (as MRIs or X-Rays)” because he has been depressed and in pain, unable to sleep or afford treatment, or homeless. Doc. 21 at 2. He acknowledges that the MRI and x-ray reports “have not been evaluated by a doctor to determine how they affect [his] ability to work, ” but states that he has not had funds to do that. Id. at 3. He requests the court to remand his case for further consideration and to order the SSA to authorize payment for doctors to evaluate the MRI and x-rays and obtain an MRI of his lower back. Id.

         The Appeals Council “must consider new, material, and chronologically relevant evidence” and must grant a claimant’s request for review if “the [ALJ]’s action, findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of record.” Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1261 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting C.F.R. § 404.970(b)). Evidence is new when the claimant submits it to the Appeals Council after the ALJ’s decision and it is not cumulative of other evidence of record. See Washington v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm’r, 806 F.3d 1317, 1321 n.6 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Caulder v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 872, 877 (11th Cir.1986)). Evidence is material if a reasonable probability exists that it would change the administrative result. Id. (quoting Hyde v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 456, 459 (11th Cir.1987)). And, evidence is chronologically relevant if it “relates to the period on or before the date of the [ALJ’s] hearing decision.” Hargress v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm’r, 883 F.3d 1302, 1309 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting ยงยง 404.970(b), 416.1470(b)). The Appeals ...

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