Conner v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION that the Commissioner's final decision should be affirmed. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 4/19/2016. (YMB)
2016 Apr-19 AM 09:36
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
Civil Action Number
Alan Conner brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social
Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking review of the final adverse
decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). This
court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal
standard and that her decision – which has become the decision of the
Commissioner – is supported by substantial evidence.
Therefore, the court
AFFIRMS the decision denying benefits.
I. Procedural History
Conner filed his application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits and
Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on December 27, 2012, alleging a
disability onset date of October 31, 2012, due to fibromyalgia, arthritis, chronic
fatigue, osteoarthritis, arthralgia, memory loss, headaches, dizziness, lack of
concentration, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and difficulty sleeping. (R.
13, 65-66). After the SSA denied his application, Conner requested a hearing
before an ALJ. (R. 13). The ALJ subsequently denied Conner’s claim, (R. 10),
which became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council
refused to grant review, (R. 1-4). Conner then filed this action pursuant to §205(g)
of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Doc. 1.
II. Standard of Review
The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial
evidence to sustain the ALJ’s decision, see 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Walden v.
Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the
correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988);
Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§405(g)
and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner’s “factual findings are conclusive if
supported by ‘substantial evidence.’” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529
(11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the
evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must
review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is “reasonable
and supported by substantial evidence.” See id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler,
703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a
preponderance of evidence; “[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person
would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529
(quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by
substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner’s factual findings
even if the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner’s findings.
See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. While the court acknowledges that judicial review
of the ALJ’s findings is limited in scope, it notes that the review “does not yield
automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.
III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework
To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable
physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which
has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. §416(I). A physical or mental
impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or
psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(3).
Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20
Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in
whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative
answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps
three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other
than step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.’” Id. at 1030 (citing 20
C.F.R. §416.920(a)-(f)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to
prior work the burden shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can
do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ found that Conner had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 31, 2012, his alleged onset
date, and therefore met Step One. (R. 15). Next, the ALJ found that Conner
satisfied Step Two because he suffered from the “severe” impairments of
fibromyalgia, PTSD, and a history of thyroid cancer. Id. The ALJ then proceeded
to the next step and found that Conner did not satisfy Step Three since he “does not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals
the severity of one of the listed impairments.”
Although the ALJ
answered Step Three in the negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800
F.2d at 1030, she proceeded to Step Four, where she determined that Conner has
the residual functional capacity (RFC) to:
perform less than the full range of sedentary work. . . . [Conner] can lift and
carry 10 pounds[,] frequently stand and walk for 2 hours, sit for 6 hours, and
[Conner] will need a sit/stand option on the hour. . . . [Conner] can maintain
concentration, persistence, and pace sufficiently to complete 2-hour work
intervals for an 8-hour day. . . . [and Conner] can understand, remember, and
carry out job tasks constantly.
(R. 17). In light of Conner’s RFC, the ALJ determined that Conner “is unable to
perform any of his past relevant work.” (R. 21). Lastly, in Step Five, the ALJ
considered Conner’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, and determined
that “[Conner] has acquired work skills from past relevant work that are
transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy.” (R. 22). Therefore, the ALJ found that Conner had “not been
under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 31, 2012,
through the date of [the ALJ’s] decision.” (R. 23).
Conner’s sole contention on appeal is that the ALJ failed to properly
consider the evidence from the Department of Veterans Administration (“the VA”)
that he submitted to the Appeals Council. Doc. 9 at 6; (R. 342-364, 369-375).
Subsequent to the ALJ’s decision, the VA found that Conner was “unable to work
due to [his] service connected disability/disabilities.” (R. 372). Based on the
record, contrary to Conner’s contention, the Appeals Council, in fact, made
Conner’s new submissions part of the record. See (R. 2, 5, 342-364, 369-375).
Specifically, the Appeals Council considered the reasons why Conner disagreed
with the ALJ’s decision and the additional evidence Conner submitted. See (R. 2,
5, 342-364, 369-375). However, as the Appeals Council explained, it found that
“this information does not provide a basis for changing the Administrative Law
Judge’s decision.” (R. 2). While Conner may disagree with this conclusion,
nonetheless, these facts are sufficient to establish that the Appeals Council
adequately evaluated the new evidence. See Parks v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin.,
783 F.3d 847, 852-53 (11th Cir. 2015) (holding Appeals Council satisfied its duty
when it stated it considered new evidence and added it to record); see also Mitchell
v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 771 F.3d 780, 783 (11th Cir. 2014) (“where the
Appeals Council expressly stated in its letter to [the claimant] that it had
considered his additional evidence, . . . [the court had] no basis . . . to second-guess
that assertion”). Therefore, Conner’s assertion that the Appeals Council made “no
evaluation” of the VA’s findings is unavailing.
Moreover, although Conner correctly asserts that “the findings of another
agency on disability, while not binding on the Commissioner, are entitled to great
weight,” doc. 9 at 7 (quoting Falcon v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 827, 831 (11th Cir.
1984), Conner side steps that, at a minimum, he needs to show that the VA’s
disability determination is similar to the Commissioner’s regulations. See Werner
v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 421 F. App’x. 935, 940 (11th Cir. 2011) (finding state
agency determination was insufficient to call into question ALJ’s decision because
plaintiff did not present evidence showing state used criteria similar to
Conner never made such a showing, and more
importantly, the new evidence — which consists of the VA’s decision and award
letter — shows that the VA only considered Conner’s PTSD, chronic fatigue, and
fibromyalgia to be service related disabilities. (R. 345-346). The record before the
ALJ, however, did not establish that these conditions rose to the level of a severe
impairment. As the ALJ noted, Conner only received conservative treatment for
his fibromyalgia and PTSD, and had generally succeeded in controlling his
symptoms. (R. 18-19). Next, with regard to the chronic fatigue, the ALJ pointed
out that Conner reported an improvement in his energy level to one of his treating
physicians, (R. 19, 70, 76, 309), and that none of Conner’s treating physicians
indicated that he had any restrictions based on these symptoms, (R. 21). Put
differently, the record before the ALJ failed to establish that Conner had severe
disabling conditions, and the VA’s finding is insufficient to establish that the ALJ
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the Appeals Council
properly evaluated Conner’s new evidence, the ALJ’s determination that Conner is
not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and the ALJ applied the correct
legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the Commissioner’s
final decision is AFFIRMED.
DONE the 19th day of April, 2016.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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