Christiansen v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 3/2/15. (YMB)
2015 Mar-02 AM 11:40
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
BRIANA DOMINIK CHRISTIANSEN,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner, Social Security
Civil Action Number
Plaintiff Briana Dominik Christiansen (“Christiansen”) 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”). Doc. 1. The court finds that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to apply the correct legal standard and
that his decision denying benefits—which has become the decision of the
Commissioner—is due to be REVERSED.
I. Procedural History
Christiansen filed her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits
and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income on July 6, 2011, alleging a disability
Page 1 of 9
onset date of July 1, 2011 due to diabetes, gastroparesis, and diabetic retinopathy.
(R. 152, 154, 157). After the SSA denied her application, Christiansen requested a
hearing before an ALJ. (R. 73). The ALJ subsequently denied Chritiansen’s claim,
(R. 16-25), which became the final decision of the Commissioner when the
Appeals Council refused to grant review, (R. 1-3). Christiansen then filed this
action pursuant to § 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 205(g), on July 8, 2014. 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). While judicial review of the
ALJ’s findings is limited in scope, review “does not yield automatic affirmance.”
Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701. Significantly, the court must be satisfied that the decision
of the ALJ “is grounded in the proper application of the appropriate legal
standards,” id., and “[f]ailure to apply the correct legal standards . . . is grounds for
reversal,” Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629 (11th Cir. 1984).
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
Page 2 of 9
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 twelve
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(I)(A). 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)-(f). 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
Page 3 of 9
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).
Lastly, where, as here, a plaintiff alleges disability because of pain, she must
meet additional criteria. In this circuit, “a three part ‘pain standard’ [is applied]
when a claimant seeks to establish disability through his or her own testimony of
pain or other subjective symptoms.” Holt v. Barnhart, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th
Cir. 1991). Specifically,
The pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical
condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the
severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the
objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it
can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.1
Id. However, medical evidence of pain itself, or of its intensity, is not required:
While both the regulations and the Hand standard require objective
medical evidence of a condition that could reasonably be expected to
cause the pain alleged, neither requires objective proof of the pain
itself. Thus under both the regulations and the first (objectively
identifiable condition) and third (reasonably expected to cause pain
alleged) parts of the Hand standard a claimant who can show that his
condition could reasonably be expected to give rise to the pain he
alleges has established a claim of disability and is not required to
produce additional, objective proof of the pain itself. See 20 CFR §§
404.1529 and 416.929; Hale [v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th
Elam v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 921 F.2d 1210, 1215 (11th Cir. 1991) (parenthetical
information omitted) (emphasis added). Moreover, “[a] claimant’s subjective
This standard is referred to as the Hand standard, named after Hand v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 1545, 1548 (11th Cir.
Page 4 of 9
testimony supported by medical evidence that satisfies the pain standard is itself
sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223. Therefore, if
a claimant testifies to disabling pain and satisfies the three part pain standard, the
ALJ must find a disability unless the ALJ properly discredits the claimant’s
Furthermore, when the ALJ fails to credit a claimant’s pain testimony, the
ALJ must articulate reasons for that decision:
It is established in this circuit that if the [ALJ] fails to articulate reasons for
refusing to credit a claimant’s subjective pain testimony, then the [ALJ], as a
matter of law, has accepted that testimony as true. Implicit in this rule is the
requirement that such articulation of reasons by the [ALJ] be supported by
Hale, 831 F.2d at 1012. Therefore, if the ALJ either fails to articulate reasons for
refusing to credit the plaintiff’s pain testimony, or if the ALJ’s reasons are not
supported by substantial evidence, the court must accept as true the pain testimony
of the plaintiff and render a finding of disability. Id.
IV. The ALJ’s Decision
In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ found that Christiansen had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2006, and therefore met Step
One. (R. 18). Next, the ALJ found that Christiansen satisfied Step Two because she
suffered from the severe impairments of “type I diabetes mellitus and a generalized
anxiety disorder . . . .” Id. The ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that
Christiansen did not satisfy Step Three since she “[did] not have an impairment or
Page 5 of 9
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of
the listed impairments . . . .” (R. 19). Although the ALJ answered Step Three in the
negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, he proceeded to
Step Four, where he determined that Christiansen has the residual functional
capacity (RFC) to:
[L]ift and/or carry, including upward pulling, 20 pounds and
frequently up to 10 pounds; stand and/or walk with normal breaks for
a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and sit with
normal breaks for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday.
She has no limitations in the upper or lower extremities for pushing or
pulling or the use of foot controls. She can occasionally climb ramps
and stairs and frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. She
should not work on ladders, ropes or scaffolds or around hazardous
machinery or unprotected heights. Frequently is defined as up to [twothirds] of the work day and occasionally is defined as up to [one-third]
of the workday. She is capable of understanding and remembering
simple and detailed instructions, capable of managing tasks that are
complex and detailed, and is able to maintain attention and
concentration for two-hour increments across an eight-hour workday
with all regular breaks. Any contact with the public should be casual
and on a frequent basis, any supervision should be on an occasional
basis, and any changes in the workplace should be gradually
introduced and well explained.
(R. 25). Therefore, the ALJ found that Christiansen “has not been under a
disability, as defined in the Social Security act, from July 1, 2006, through the date
of [the ALJ’s] decision.” Id.
As Christiansen points out, her case “stands or falls on [her] fight with . . .
diabetes.” Doc. 8 at 12. In January 2013, the ALJ decided that while Christiansen
Page 6 of 9
indeed suffers from type I diabetes mellitus, her condition does not meet or
medically equal the listing criteria for diabetes mellitus as set forth in listing 9.08.
(R. 19-20). At the time of the ALJ’s decision, however, the SSA had deleted listing
9.08 and replaced it with listing 9.00. See Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating
Endocrine Disorders, 76 Fed. Reg. 19,692 (Apr. 8, 2011) (to be codified at 20
C.F.R. pts. 404 and 416). Stated differently, prior to when Christiansen applied for
benefits, listing 9.08 evaluated diabetes mellitus by inquiring whether the claimant
suffered from neuropathy, frequent episodes of diabetic ketoacidosis, or severe
retinal inflammation. See Brown v. Astrue, 280 F. App’x 872, 877 (11th Cir. 2008).
However, effective June 7, 2011, the SSA deleted listing 9.08 and published new
medical criteria for evaluating diabetes mellitus. See Revised Medical Criteria for
Evaluating Endocrine Disorders, 76 Fed. Reg. 19,692.2 To replace the original
listing 9.08, the revised listing 9.00 required claimants suffering from an endocrine
disorder, including diabetes, to show that their illness caused a listed condition for
another body system in order to satisfy Step Three of the SSA’s five-part
sequential analysis.3 See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 § 9.00.
From time to time, the SSA revises the criteria in the listings to “reflect advances in medical knowledge, treatment,
and methods of evaluating . . . impairments.” Brown v. Barnhart, 370 F. Supp. 2d 286, 290 (D.D.C. 2005)
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
For example, recurrent episodes of diabetic ketoacidosis can result in cardiac arrhythmias, which are evaluated
under listing 4.00, intestinal necrosis, which is evaluated under listing 5.00, and cerebral edema and seizures, which
are evaluated under listing 11.00.
Page 7 of 9
The court concludes that the ALJ—in applying the original listing 9.08
instead of revised listing 9.00—applied the improper legal standard to evaluate
Christiansen’s diabetic condition. As this court has previously explained, in
adopting new listing criteria for diabetes mellitus, the SSA clearly intended that
listing 9.00 would apply “to new applications filed on or after the effective date of
the final rules . . . .” Buttram v. Colvin, No. 4:13-CV-00390-AKK, 2013 WL
6225238, at *4 (N.D. Ala. Nov. 20, 2013) aff’d sub nom. Buttram v. Soc. Sec.
Admin., Com’r, No. 14-10316, 2014 WL 6676987 (11th Cir. Nov. 26, 2014) (citing
Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Endocrine Disorders, 76 Fed. Reg. at
19,692) (internal quotation marks omitted). In Christiansen’s case, listing 9.00
went into effect on June 7, 2011, prior to the date of her application on July 6,
2011, which means that the ALJ should have applied listing 9.00 to evaluate
Christiansen’s diabetes mellitus. Accordingly, while the court expresses no opinion
regarding whether Christiansen meets the criteria in the original listing 9.08 or
revised listing 9.00, the court concludes that the ALJ committed reversible error in
applying listing 9.08 to Christiansen’s case. See Rodriguez ex rel. V.R. v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., No. 1:13-CV-02152 ALC, 2014 WL 4792076, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Sept.
25, 2014) (reversing where ALJ applied listing 9.08 to claim filed after listing 9.00
went into effect).
Page 8 of 9
Based on the foregoing, the court concludes that the ALJ failed to apply the
Commissioner’s final decision is due to be REVERSED. A separate order in
accordance with the memorandum of decision will be entered.
DONE the 2nd day of March, 2015.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Page 9 of 9
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?