Hall v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 3/31/2021. (PSM)
2021 Mar-31 AM 10:16
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
FELICIA GOBLE HALL,
Commissioner of Social Security,
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
The plaintiff, Felicia Goble Hall (“Hall”), appeals from the decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying
her applications for a period of disability, Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”),
and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Hall timely pursued and exhausted her
administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).
Hall was 48 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge’s
(“ALJ’s”) decision. (Tr. at 39.) She has an eleventh-grade education. (Tr. at 40.)
Her past work experiences include employment as a cashier, store laborer, vending
machine attendant, vending machine repairer, and delivery driver. (Tr. at 51.) Hall
claims that she became disabled on June 5, 2015, due to severe back injury and rib
injury. (Tr. at 23, 460.) Hall also claims she suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome,
obesity, and a history of left shoulder injury. (Tr. at 26.)
The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible
for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245
F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until
making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis
will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The
first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in
substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i).
If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.
The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of
the plaintiff’s physical and mental medically determinable impairments (“MDI”).
See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
An individual impairment or
combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy
the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii),
result in a finding of not disabled.
416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the
record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that
“substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that
the plaintiff was not disabled).
Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the
plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to
the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed
impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and
416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the plaintiff’s impairment or combination
of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator
must determine the plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before
proceeding to the fourth step. See id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has
the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. See id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff’s impairment or combination
of impairments does not prevent her from performing her past relevant work, the
evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.
The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff’s RFC,
age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can
make an adjustment to other work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).
If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find her not disabled. Id.;
see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other
work, the evaluator will find her disabled.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).
Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Hall met the
insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020.
(Tr. at 25.) The ALJ further determined that Hall has not engaged in SGA since
June 5, 2015, the alleged onset date of her disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ,
Hall’s allegations of degenerative disc disease with spondylosis, foraminal stenosis,
radiculopathy status post lumbar fusion, carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, and
history of left shoulder injury were severe medically determinable impairments that
significantly limit the ability to perform basic work activities. (Tr. at 26.) However,
the ALJ found these impairments or a combination of these impairments do not equal
the severity of one of the listed impairments in the regulations (Id.) According to the
ALJ, the pertinent medical evidence of record, demonstrated by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, does not establish that any
of Hall’s impairments are medically equivalent to any section of the regulation’s
listing of impairments, nor has any physician designated by the Secretary so opined.
(Id.) Considering the entire record, the ALJ determined that Hall has the following
[C]laimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary
work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a0 except the claimant can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes or
scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl;
frequently handle, finger, and feel with her upper bilateral extremities;
occasionally be exposed to temperature extremes, wetness and
humidity, and vibration; and never be exposed to unprotected heights,
hazardous machinery, or commercial driving.
(Tr. at 26.) Next the ALJ determined that Hall’s impairments prevent her from
performing any past relevant work as actually or generally performed. (Tr. at 28.)
Lastly, the ALJ considered Hall’s age, education, work experience, and RFC and
determined that there are jobs in the national economy that may be performed by
Hall. (Tr. at 29.) These jobs include a charge account clerk, a button reclaimer, and
a spotter. (Tr. at 30.) Therefore, the ALJ determined that Hall has the RFC to
perform a full range of sedentary work and a finding of “not disabled” is required by
the regulations. (Id.) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Hall, “has not
been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 5, 2015,
through the date of this decision.” (Tr. at 30.)
Standard of Review
This 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)). This 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, this 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 this 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).
Hall argues the Appeals Council failed to properly consider evidence she
submitted in support of her request for review of the ALJ’s decision. The Appeals
Council will review a case based on additional evidence if the evidence relates to the
period on or before the ALJ’s hearing decision and there is a reasonable probability
that the new evidence would change the outcome of the decision. See 20 C.F.R. §
“With a few exceptions, the claimant is allowed to present new evidence at
each stage of this administrative process,” including before the Appeals Council.
Ingram v. Comm’r, 496 F.3d 1253, 1261 (11th Cir. 2007). The Appeals Council has
the discretion not to review the ALJ’s denial of benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1470(b).
However, “[t]he Appeals Council must consider new, material, and chronologically
relevant evidence and must review the case if ‘the administrative law judge’s action,
findings, or conclusion is contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of
record.’” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1261; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.970(b), 416.1470(b).
The new evidence is material if “it is relevant and probative so that there is a
reasonable possibility that it would change the administrative result.” Hyde v. Bowen,
823 F.2d 456, 459 (11th Cir. 1987). It is chronologically relevant if “it relates to the
period on or before the date of the [ALJ] hearing decision.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.970(b).
When considering the Appeals Council’s denial of review, a reviewing court
considers such new evidence, along with all the other evidence in the record, to
determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.970(b), 416.1470(b); Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1266.
Here, after the ALJ issued her decision on September 19, 2018 (tr. at 30), Hall
subsequently submitted five new pieces of evidence to the Appeals Council. This
evidence includes (1) medical evidence detailing diagnosis and treatment, from
November 20, 2007 to January 14, 2019, completed by The Orthopaedic Center; (2)
physical therapy performance forms, from December 13, 2016 to January 4, 2017,
completed at Therapy Plus Fitness; (3) a list of examinations and procedures
performed by Dr. Brent Newell, from November 17, 2016 to May 4, 2017, at the
Huntsville Hospital Spine & Neuro Center; (4) records of epidural procedures and
medical records, from February 16, 2015 to February 13, 2018, at The Surgery
Center; and (5) a physical capacities evaluation form completed by Dr. Michael
Cosgrove, from April 19, 2019, at The Orthopaedic Center. (Tr. at 9, 65-99, 100-128,
This additional evidence is not material. Indeed, even if accepted, there is not
a reasonable probability that it would change the administrative result because it
supports conditions that were already considered by the ALJ. (Tr. at 26, 65-99, 100128, 133-263.) The medical records include documentation for various procedures
performed on Hall from various medical establishments; however, the medical
documents reiterate the same known conditions. (Tr. at 65-99, 100-128, 133-263.) At
the hearing, the ALJ acknowledged that Hall’s back injuries and subsequent
surgeries left her with severe impairments of degenerative disc disease with
spondylosis, foraminal stenosis, radiculopathy status post lumbar fusion, carpal
tunnel syndrome, obesity, and a history of left shoulder injury that could significantly
limit the ability to perform basic work activities. (Tr. at 26.) Hall does not explain
why any of the new evidence would change the outcome of her claim, considering
that the medical records are consistent with injuries already alleged and considered.
Dr. Michael Cosgrove’s physical capacities evaluation is similarly immaterial.
Hall first sought a physical examination from Dr. Michael Cosgrove, an
anesthesiologist, on April 19, 2019, several months after the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. at
9.) On the physical capacities form, Dr. Cosgrove opined that Hall would be off-task
20 percent of the time on a normal workday. (Id.) Dr. Cosgrove also determined that
in a 30-day period, Hall would fail to report to work on two-to-three days because of
her physical symptoms. (Id.) Dr. Cosgrove further noted that Hall is limited to sitting
and standing for only two hours at a time, and that these two-hour intervals will still
require frequent positional changes. (Id.) According to Dr. Cosgrove, Hall would be
expected to lie down two hours during an eight-hour workday. (Id.) However,
neither the physical capacities evaluation nor any other medical evidence submitted
for appeal supports Dr. Cosgrove’s opinion. (Tr. at 9, 27-28.) Dr. Cosgrove’s
opinion provides conclusory statements without support from the objective medical
evidence. (Tr. at 9, 27-28.)
The objective medical evidence on the record provides substantial evidence
that contradicts Dr. Cosgrove’s opinions. At the initial hearing, the ALJ gave
significant weight to the findings and opinions of Dr. Celtin Robertson, the
consulting physician. (Tr. at 28.) According to Dr. Robertson, Hall could
occasionally lift up to twenty pounds and could stand up to two hours and sit upwards
of six hours. (Tr. at 27.) The findings of Dr. Robertson were consistent with earlier
functional capacity evaluations by The Orthopaedic Center and consistent with
sedentary work. (Id.) Because substantial evidence supports Dr. Robertson’s
findings and contradicts Dr. Cosgrove’s findings, Dr. Cosgrove’s evaluations would
not have had a reasonable probability of changing the administrative result.
The Appeals Council properly denied review because there was not a
reasonable probability that Hall’s newly submitted evidence would change the
outcome of the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. at 2.) Moreover, the Appeals Council was not
required to give a more detailed explanation or address each piece of new evidence
individually. See Mitchell v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 771 F.3d 780, 784 (11th Cir.
2014). In cases such as this one, where the Appeals Council has denied review
because of immateriality, Plaintiff’s reliance on cases such as Epps v. Harris, 624 F.2d
1267, 1273 (5th Cir. 1980) and Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 634 (11th Cir. 1984),
has been consistently noted as misplaced by the Eleventh Circuit in both published
and unpublished decisions. See e.g., Mitchell, 771 F.3d at 782-84; Parks v. Comm’r,
Soc. Sec. Admin., 783 F.3d, 847, 853 (11th Cir. 2015); Atha v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., 616 F. App’x, 931, 936 (11th Cir. 2015); Beavers v. Comm’r, Social Sec.
Admin., 601 F. App’x 818, 822 (11th Cir. 2015). Indeed, “Epps does not apply when,
as here, the Appeals Council denies a petition for review.” Mitchell, 771 F.3d at 783.
Plaintiff’s claim that the Appeals Council should have provided a more in-depth
discussion of the new evidence is without merit.
Upon review of the administrative record, and considering all of Hall’s
arguments, the Court finds the Appeals Council’s denial of review is supported by
substantial evidence and in accord with the applicable law. A separate order will be
DONE and ORDERED on March 31, 2021.
L. Scott Coogler
United States District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?