Prentice v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 8/28/2014. (KAM, )
2014 Aug-28 PM 02:49
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
MELINDA KAY PRENTICE,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, )
CIVIL ACTION NO.
Plaintiff Melinda Kay Prentice (“Prentice”) 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’s (“ALJ”) decision - which
has become the decision of the Commissioner - is supported by substantial evidence.
Therefore, for the reasons elaborated herein, the court will affirm the decision denying
I. Procedural History
Prentice, whose past relevant experience includes work as motel manager, filed an
application for Title II disability insurance benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security
Income on June 11, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of December 5, 2008, due to
back problems, diabetes, depression, eye problems and lung problems. (R. 10, 145).
After the SSA denied Prentice’s claim, she requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. 9697). The ALJ subsequently denied Prentice’s claim, (R. 7-15), which became the final
decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. (R.
1-4). Prentice then filed this action for judicial review 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) mandates 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, 849 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 impairments 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 twelve 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 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)-(g), 416.920(a)-(g). 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 Prentice had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since December 5, 2008, and, therefore, met Step One. (R.
12). Next, the ALJ found that Prentice satisfied Step Two because she suffered from the
severe impairments of “asthma; Type II diabetes with diabetic neuropathy; carpal tunnel
syndrome bilaterally; bilateral ankle edema; [and] chronic back pain.” Id. The ALJ then
proceeded to the next step and found that Prentice failed to satisfy Step Three because
she “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically
equals one of the listed impairments.” (R. 13). Although the ALJ answered Step Three
in the negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, the ALJ
proceeded to Step Four where she determined that Prentice has the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to perform
light work (lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently;
sit/stand/walk up to 6 hours each in an 8 hour day) as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) when afforded the option to sit or stand at
will. However, the claimant can have no concentrated exposure to fumes
and dust. She can perform only frequent, as opposed to constant repetitive,
bilateral handling and fingering.
Id. In light of her RFC, the ALJ held that Prentice “is capable of performing past
relevant work as a motel manager.” (R. 15). Therefore, the ALJ found that Prentice “has
not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from December 5,
2008, through the date of this decision.” (R. 15).
Prentice’s sole issue on appeal is her contention that the ALJ committed an error
of law by failing to find her depressive disorder as a severe impairment at Step Two.
Doc. 9 at 2. According to Prentice, the ALJ failed to consider that “the mental health
center made a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate,” which “is a
severe impairment within the regulatory criteria.” Id. at 6-7.
As Prentice acknowledges, “there is not a great deal in the way of medical
evidence concerning [Prentice’s] depression.” Id. at 6. In fact, the medical records show
Prentice was treated on four occasions at the Mental Health Center of Madison County
(“MHC”). Prentice first visited the MHC on February 3, 2010, and her counselor, Karin
Flores, completed a psychosocial assessment noting that Prentice reported that she
isolates herself, is not motivated to do anything, stays in bed most of the time, has poor
sleep, is stressed out, tearful, and feels worthless and hopeless. (R. 446). Ms. Flores also
prepared a treatment plan listing Prentice’s diagnosis as Major Depressive Disorder,
Recurrent, Moderate. (R. 450). When Prentice returned to the MHC for a psychiatric
assessment on February 23, 2010, Dr. Alan Piha noted that Prentice “looks depressed,”
and prescribed medications. (R. 444-45). These medications proved effective, and on
April 6, 2010, Prentice denied problems with mood or anxiety, and reported to Dr. Piha
that the medication “helped her to feel better and she is engaging more.” (R. 440).
Prentice also reported that she was “not having crying spells,” and that “[s]he is looking
for a part time job and is applying for disability.” Id. Dr. Piha found on mental status
examination that Prentice’s mood was euthymic, that she appeared alert, and that her
thought process was organized. Id. At her final visit to Dr. Piha on July 6, 2010,
Prentice reported “no complaints . . . other than stressors,” and that “she [was] not
depressed.” (R. 436). Dr. Piha commented that Prentice was “euthymic and talkative.”
At Step Two, the ALJ found that Prentice’s depression caused “at most, mild,
limitations in activities of daily living, social functioning and concentration, persistence
or pace” and “[t]here are no episodes of decompensation.” (R. 12). The regulations
provide that in such circumstances, the ALJ “will generally conclude that your
impairment is not severe, unless the evidence otherwise indicates that there is more
than a minimal limitation in your ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520a(d)(1). Accordingly, the ALJ found Prentice’s “depression has, at most, a
minimal effect upon [her] ability to perform work-related functions, and consequently, is
‘non-severe’ within the regulatory definition.” (R. 12-13). The ALJ’s discussion of the
medical evidence shows the factual basis for his finding. In reviewing the MHC
treatment records, the ALJ recognized Prentice was diagnosed with “major depressive
disorder,” and began treatment at MHC in 2010, “when she reported stresses including
being on probation.” (R. 14). However, the ALJ correctly observed that after Prentice
began treatment, Dr. Piha noted that she “denied mood symptoms, anxiety,
hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, or suicidal or homicidal symptoms,” had “a good
appetite with normal orientation,” and that Prentice “was not depressed.” Id. Based on
this record, the court finds that the MHC treatment records provide substantial evidence
to support the ALJ’s reasonable conclusion that Prentice’s depression was not a severe
impairment because they shows that treatment relieved Prentice’s depressive symptoms.
See Epps v. Harris, 624 F.2d 1267,1270 (11th Cir. 1980) (conditions adequately
controlled by treatment are not disabling).1
The court further finds that Prentice’s heavy reliance on the diagnosis of Major
Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, Moderate to support her contention that the ALJ erred
by not including it as a severe impairment is misplaced because “the mere existence of
[this diagnosis] does not reveal the extent to which [it] limit[s] [Prentice’s] ability to
work or undermine the ALJ’s determination in that regard.” Moore v. Barnhart, 405
In Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F. 2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc),
the Eleventh Circuit adopted as binding precedent all decisions of the former Fifth
Circuit rendered prior to October 1, 1981.
F.3d 1208, 1213 n.6 (11th Cir. 2005). Significantly, the regulations require Prentice to
“provide evidence . . . showing how [her depression] affects [her] functioning,” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(c), 416.912(c); see also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276
(11th Cir. 2003) (“[T]he claimant bears the burden of proving that [s]he is disabled, and,
consequently, [s]he is responsible for producing evidence in support of h[er] claim.”)
(citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a), (c)). Here, the treatment records do not support such
limitations and Prentice has not met her burden of showing that her depression caused
more than minimal limitations in her ability to do basic work activities.
Finally, because the ALJ found in Prentice’s favor at Step Two, the specific
impairments listed are irrelevant. After all, “[n]othing requires that the ALJ must
identify, at step two, all of the impairments that should be considered severe,” provided
the ALJ considered the claimant’s impairments in combination. Heatly v. Comm’r of Soc.
Sec., 382 F. App’x 823, 825 (11th Cir. 2010); see also Delia v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 433
F. App’x 885, 887 (11th Cir. 2011) (failure to find a claimant’s mental impairment severe
was harmless because the ALJ found other severe impairments and considered the
impairment in the rest of the decision). Moreover, the regulations state that the only
consequence of the analysis at Step Two is that if the ALJ finds no severe impairment or
impairments, he should reach a conclusion of no disability. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.920(c)a)(ii). There is no error here because the ALJ recognized that she must
consider Prentice’s nonsevere impairments in assessing Prentice’s RFC, (R. 11), and
discussed Prentice’s depression in making that assessment. (R. 14). This is sufficient to
show the the ALJ considered Prentice’s impairments in combination. See Jones v. Dep’t
of Health & Human Servs., 941 F.2d 1529, 1533 (11th Cir.1991) (ALJ’s consideration of
the claimant’s combined impairments at later steps in the sequential evaluation process is
sufficient to show the impairments were considered in combination). Accordingly, any
error resulting from the ALJ’s failure to identify Prentice’s depression as severe at Step
Two is harmless because it did not, in any way, change the ALJ’s decision. See
Caldwell v. Barnhart, 261 F. App’x 188, 190 (11th Cir. 2008) (citing Diorio v. Heckler,
721 F.2d 726, 728 (11th Cir.1983)).
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ’s determination that
Prentice is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence, and that the ALJ applied
proper legal standards in reaching this determination. Therefore, the Commissioner’s
final decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order in accordance with the memorandum of
decision will be entered.
DONE this 28th day of August, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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