Stanford-Rearick v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION. Signed by Judge R David Proctor on 3/22/2013. (AVC)
2013 Mar-22 PM 02:53
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MARGO L. STANFORD-REARICK,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF }
Case No.: 5:11-cv-03435-RDP
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
Plaintiff Margo Stanford-Rearick brings this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and
1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) seeking review of the decision by the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her applications
for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Based upon a review of the record and the briefs submitted by the
parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.
I. Proceedings Below
Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on January 23, 2008, alleging disability
beginning on August 30, 2002 due to vision problems and migraines. (Tr. 71, 75). Plaintiff’s
applications were initially denied on April 18, 2008. (Tr. 54). Plaintiff requested and received a
hearing before Administrative Law Judge Robert L. Hodges on January 20, 2010 in Huntsville,
Alabama. (Tr. 27). In his decision, issued on April 12, 2010, the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act from the alleged onset date
through the date the decision was issued. (Tr. 12, 15).
Six months after the ALJ issued his decision, Plaintiff requested and received an eye
exam from the Alabama Vocational Rehabilitation Service, dated October 17, 2010, (Tr. 175)
and a vocational assessment from Phoenix Vocational Services. (Tr. 176-79). The report from
the vocational assessment, conducted on October 30, 2010, concluded that “[Plaintiff] does not
exhibit potential for employment at this time [the time the assessment was conducted] based on
her medical condition.” (Tr. 176, 179). Plaintiff submitted this assessment to the Appeals
Council on May 25, 2011 to supplement her request for review of the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 17173). The Appeals Council evaluated the additional evidence along with the record and found
that the new evidence did no provide a basis for changing the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 1-2). The
Appeals Council therefore denied Plaintiff’s request to review the ALJ’s decision. (Tr. 1). That
denial became the final decision of the Commissioner, making this case a proper subject for this
court’s review. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was a thirty-three year-old, single mother of five.
(Tr. 32, 41, 43). Plaintiff had a high school education with some college experience. (Tr. 43).
Plaintiff has had no previous work experience. (Tr. 44). During the hearing, Plaintiff alleged
disability beginning on August 30, 2002 due to vision problems and migraines. (Tr. 33, 36).
Plaintiff testified that she contracted viral encephalitis as a child, which damaged the part
of her brain that processes vision. (Tr. 33-35). As a result, Plaintiff’s vision is consistently
blurry, lacks depth perception, and constantly depicts everything “moving up and down.” (Tr.
35-56). This condition, Plaintiff noted, qualified her for disability benefits when she was in her
late teens. (Tr. 32). Plaintiff told the ALJ that this visual impairment was so severe that it once
caused her to totally destroy her car in an auto collision. (Tr. 35).
On April 8, 2008, Plaintiff underwent a consultative eye examination at the request of the
Social Security Administration. (Tr. 260-62). The examiners found Plaintiff to have normal
field vision and normal muscular function, but noted minimal function in Plaintiff’s binocular
vision due to nystagmus (the inability to fixate). (Tr. 260-61). Plaintiff was also found to have
minimal depth perception. (Tr. 261). Plaintiff was cautioned to avoid tasks requiring fine
acuity, depth perception, or balance. (Id.).
As for her migraines, Plaintiff testified that she suffers migraine headaches four to five
times per week. (Tr. 34). She had received medication for her migraines in the past, but was not
receiving treatment for migraine headaches at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 37-38).
II. ALJ’s Decision
Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial work activity” is work activity that involves doing
significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a). “Gainful work activity” is
work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(b). If the ALJ finds that the claimant
engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically
determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the
claimant’s ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such
impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id. Third, the ALJ must determine whether
the claimant’s impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20
C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526.
If such criteria are met, the claimant is declared disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under
the third step, the ALJ may still find disability under the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ
must first determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which refers to the
claimant’s ability to work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). In the fourth step,
the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is determined to be capable of performing past relevant
work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled. Id. If the ALJ finds the claimant unable to
perform past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(v). In the last part of the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant
is able to perform any other work commensurate with her RFC, age, education, and work
experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the
ALJ to prove the existence, in significant numbers, of jobs in the national economy that the
claimant can do given her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g),
In the instant case, the ALJ determined that: (1) Plaintiff did not engage in substantial
gainful activity between August 30, 2002 and the time of the hearing (Tr. 17); and (2) Plaintiff
has medically determinable impairments that more than minimally affect her ability to perform
work-related activities (Id.); but (3) none of these impairments or combination of these
impairments meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 18-19). The ALJ detemined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light
work in an eight-hour day with no tasks involving depth perception, visual acuity, and balance.
(Tr. 19-21). Plaintiff has no previous work experience, so the ALJ proceeded to step five of his
analysis and determined, using his RFC findings, that jobs do exist in sufficient numbers in the
national ecomony that Plaintiff can perform. (Tr. 21).
III. Plaintiff’s Argument for Reversal
Plaintiff raises two arguments for reversing or remanding the ALJ’s decision. First,
Plaintiff asserts that the Appeals Council gave only a perfunctory consideration of the new
evidence that was proffered a year after the ALJ issued his decision and, therefore, remand is
warrented. (Pl.’s Mem. 6). Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider her
impairments in combination, and claims that was reversible error. (Pl.’s Mem. 7).
IV. Standard of Review
Judicial review of disability claims under the Act is limited to whether the
Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence or whether the correct legal
standards were applied. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir.
2002). 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. Martin v. Sullivan,
894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th
Cir. 1983)). Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) mandates that the Commissioner’s findings are conclusive
if supported by “substantial evidence.” Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001).
Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is “such
relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); see also Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d
at 1529. If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner’s factual findings must be
affirmed, even if the record preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings. Crawford v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004); see also Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529.
Legal standards are reviewed de novo. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F. 3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir.
The court now considers Plaintiff’s two arguments in turn. For the reasons stated below,
the court concludes that the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and correct legal
standards were applied.
The Appeals Council was Not Required to Consider New Evidence Not
Related to the Relevant Disability Period
As Plainitff notes, the Appeals Council is required to evaluate “new and material
evidence submitted to it if it relates to the period on or before the date of the administrative law
judge hearing decision.” (Pl.’s Mem. 6), citing Keeton v. Department of Health and Human
Services, 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.970(b), 416.1470(b)
(“Appeals council shall evaluate the entire record including the new and material evidence
submitted to it if it relates to the period on or before the date of the administrative law judge
hearing decision”). Plaintiff argues that the Appeals Council inadequately evaluated the new
evidence she submitted in May 2011, the visual exam and vocation assessment that were taken
in October of 2010.1
(Pl.’s Mem. 6).
This argument, however, overlooks one important
requirement: the new, material evidence must “relate to the period on or before the date of the
administrative law judge hearing decision” for the Appeals Council to be required to evaluate it.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.970(b), 416.1470(b).
Reports from the visual exam and the vocational
Plaintiff’s argument resembles an argument the court recently addressed in Girchuru v. Astrue, 2:11-cv-04203RDP (Doc. #11). However, the court need not examine the Eleventh Circuit precedent it considered in Girchuru because
the evidence at issue here does not relate to the relevant period of disability. Thus, such a review is not warranted.
assessment both indicate that they describe Plaintiff’s condition when the tests were
administered in October 2010, six months after the ALJ issued his decision. (Tr. 175-79).
Because this evidence did not relate to the period on or before the date the ALJ issued his
decision, the Appeals Council was not obligated to evaluate the evidence in the first place.
To be clear, the court makes no determinations regarding the credibility of the new
evidence. It only notes that, because the new evidence does not relate to the period of disability
that Plaintiff asked the ALJ to consider (or, for that matter, could consider) in reaching his
determination, the new evidence can neither support nor undermine the ALJ’s findings. This
new evidence really concerns a different alleged period of disability, which would be more
appropriately introduced through a new application for Social Security benefits.
The ALJ Properly Considered Plaintiff’s Impairments in Combination
Plaintiff’s second contention is that the ALJ failed to properly consider her impairments
in combination. (Pl’s Mem. 7). This allegation, however, is unsupported by the record. The ALJ
clearly indicated in his decision that he “considered all symptoms” when he made his RFC
determination after he explicitly concluded that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in [the
listings].” (Tr. 18-19). The Eleventh Circuit has made clear that a statement by an ALJ that he
does not consider a claimant to have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals a listing is sufficient to show that the ALJ considered whether a claimant’s
impairments in combination would meet or medically equal a listing. See Wilson v. Barnhart,
284 F.3d 1219, 1224-25 (11th Cir. 2001); Jones v. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., 941 F.2d
1529, 1533 (11th Cir. 1991); Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1076 (11th Cir. 1986). This
argument, therefore, misses the mark.
The court concludes that the ALJ’s findings are supported by substantial evidence and
the correct legal standards were applied. Therefore, the decision of the Commissioner is due to
be affirmed. A separate order will be entered.
DONE and ORDERED this
day of March, 2013.
R. DAVID PROCTOR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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