Miller v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Staci G Cornelius on 9/28/17. (MRR, )
2017 Sep-28 AM 08:35
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MICHAEL LYNN MILLER,
Case No.: 4:16-cv-01255-SGC
The plaintiff, Michael Lynn Miller, appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying
his application for Social Security Income. (Doc. 1). Mr. Miller timely pursued
and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner
is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have
consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc.
9). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.
FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Mr. Miller was forty-nine years old on the date of his application; he has a
(See R. 27).
In the past, Mr. Miller has worked as a
construction laborer. (R. 239; see R. 61). Mr. Miller claimed he became disabled
on April 15, 2011, due to degenerative disc disease and depression. (See R. 238;
Doc. 17 at 1).
When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the
regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The
first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is performing substantial
gainful activity ("SGA").
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i).
If the claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation
If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the
Commissioner proceeds to consider the combined effects of all the claimant's
416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet durational
requirements before a claimant will be found disabled. Id. The decision depends
on the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341
(5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues
to step three, at which the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's
impairments meet the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the
impairments fall within this category, the claimant will be found disabled without
further consideration. Id. If the impairments do not fall within the listings, the
Commissioner determines the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
At step four the Commissioner determines whether the impairments prevent
the claimant from returning to past relevant work.
20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing
past relevant work, he or she is not disabled, and the evaluation stops. Id. If the
claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step,
at which the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's
age, education, and past work experience, to determine whether he or she can
perform other work. Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the
claimant can do other work, he or she is not disabled. Id.
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Mr. Miller had
not engaged in SGA since the application date. (R. 19). At step two, the ALJ
found Mr. Miller suffered from the following severe impairments: polysubstance
dependence, substance induced mood disorder, personality disorder NOS, major
depression, and anxiety disorder. (Id.).
At step three, the ALJ found Mr. Miller did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed
impairments. (R. 20-22). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Mr.
Miller had the RFC to perform the full range of work at all exertional levels with
the following non-exertional limitations: (1) occasional and non-intense interaction
with coworkers; and (2) no interaction with the general public. (R. 22). The ALJ
also determined Mr. Miller could: (1) understand, remember, and carry out simple
instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for two hours at time; and (3)
"adapt to routine and infrequent workplace changes and  make simple workrelated decisions." (Id.).
After concluding Mr. Miller had no past relevant work, the ALJ determined
at step four that Mr. Miller was capable of performing jobs existing in significant
numbers in the national economy. (R. 27). In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ
relied on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"). (R. 27-28). The ALJ
concluded his decision by finding Mr. Miller was not disabled. (R. 28).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a
narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is
substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the
Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Stone
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). A court gives
deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are
supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal
conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).
Nonetheless, a court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210
(11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir.
2004)). "The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers
to act with considerable latitude, and 'the possibility of drawing two inconsistent
conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding
from being supported by substantial evidence.'" Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177,
1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar.
Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if a court finds that the proof
preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must affirm if the decision is
supported by substantial evidence.
Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v.
Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).
However, no decision is automatic, for "despite th[e] deferential standard
[for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] Court scrutinize the record in its
entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Bridges v.
Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d
881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards
is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
While the disability application alleged both physical and mental
impairments, the ALJ determined that only Mr. Miller's mental impairments were
severe. On appeal, Mr. Miller does not challenge the ALJ's conclusions regarding
his physical impairments; instead, he argues substantial evidence does not support
the ALJ's determination that his mental impairments were not disabling. (Doc. 17
at 11-12). This argument hinges entirely on the ALJ's failure to consider Mr.
Miller's testimony that his prescription to Seroquel had been replaced with Prozac
approximately six (6) months prior to the hearing. (Id.). Mr. Miller contends this
medication change undermines the ALJ's conclusion that Seroquel effectively
treated his conditions. (Id. at 12). As explained below, Mr. Miller's argument
The record reflects Mr. Miller's providers variously diagnosed him with
depressive disorder NOS, anxiety disorder NOS, cannabis abuse, alcohol
dependence, and personality disorder NOS, and considered possible diagnoses of
benzodiazepine abuse, major depression, psychotic disorder NOS,
polysubstance abuse. (E.g. R. 557, 576, 682; see R. 24-25). While these ailments
have caused Mr. Miller to experience extreme symptoms, including episodes of
decompensation requiring hospitalization, the record also reflects that Mr. Miller
responded well to medication, provided he was not using alcohol or other
(R. 26; see, e.g., R. 679).
Indeed, Mr. Miller's
hospitalizations and periods of more extreme symptoms occurred when he ceased
taking his prescribed medications,1 used intoxicating substances,2 or both.3 Indeed,
Mr. Miller testified that going off his medications caused him to "lose it" and "end
up back in the hospital." (R. 43).
The ALJ's decision accurately recounts the foregoing facts. (R. 24-25). The
ALJ concluded that Mr. Miller's "mental impairments, other than his polysubstance
abuse/dependency, are controlled by his Seroquel medication, though he has a
habit of ceasing his medication and/or abusing substances, which cause him to
decompensate, as shown time and time again." (R. 26). This appeal correctly
notes the ALJ's failure to discuss Mr. Miller's testimony that his psychiatrist
discontinued Seroquel and prescribed Prozac approximately six (6) months prior to
the hearing. (R. 42; see Doc. 17 at 11-12). However, Mr. Miller testified Prozac
was even more effective than the Seroquel, noting he slept better when taking
Prozac. (R. 43).
Mr. Miller ceased taking his prescribed medications prior to his August 2010 hospitalization.
(R. 527; see R. 24).
Mr. Miller tested positive for benzodiazepines, marijuana, and/or opioids contemporaneously
with his hospitalizations in January and June 2013. (R. 560, 589; see R. 24-25).
Prior to his January 2014 hospitalization, Mr. Miller ceased taking his medications, admitted to
alcohol use, and tested positive for benzodiazepines and marijuana. (R. 679-80; see R. 25).
On appeal, Mr. Miller contends the replacement of Seroquel with Prozac
undermines the ALJ's conclusion that Seroquel effectively treated his mental
impairments. (Doc. 17 at 12). As Mr. Miller would have it, "his Seroquel was
discontinued as ineffective."
However, Mr. Miller's argument cites
exclusively to his hearing testimony and does not cite any medical evidence to
support his contention that Seroquel was ineffective. (Id. at 11-12). Additionally,
the undersigned cannot locate any medical evidence in the record to support Mr.
Miller's contention that Prozac was prescribed because Seroquel was ineffective.4
Accordingly, to the extent Mr. Miller claims the ALJ erred in concluding
Seroquel effectively treated his mental impairments, the argument fails. The ALJ's
conclusions regarding Seroquel's effectiveness is supported by substantial
evidence;5 Mr. Miller has not pointed to any medical evidence to the contrary. To
the extent Mr. Miller may contend that remand is necessary to evaluate his
disability status in light of the Prozac prescription, any remand would be futile; the
only evidence of record is Mr. Miller's testimony that Prozac is even more
effective than Seroquel.
The medical record does not include any indication regarding why Seroquel was discontinued
in favor of Prozac. Indeed, the only mention of Prozac in the medical evidence appears in a
January 29, 2014 discharge summary from Walker Baptist Medical Center, in which the
prescription is noted. (R. 678).
This evidence includes medical records documenting Mr. Miller's positive statements regarding
Seroquel's effectiveness. (R. 679 (noting Mr. Miller's statement that he "needs to be back on
Seroquel" which he described as "a miracle drug."); R. 677 (reflecting Mr. Miller's statement that
he "had done well on Seroquel"); see R. 24-25).
For all of the foregoing reasons, the ALJ's conclusion that Mr. Miller is not
disabled is supported by substantial evidence.
Upon review of the administrative record and considering all of Mr. Miller’s
arguments, the court finds the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial
evidence and is in accord with applicable law. Accordingly, the Commissioner's
decision is due to be affirmed. A separate order will be entered.
DONE this 28th day of September, 2017.
STACI G. CORNELIUS
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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