NEULEIB v. COLVIN
ORDER affirming the determination of the Commissioner. Ordered by US MAGISTRATE JUDGE STEPHEN HYLES on 10-17-17. (bdd)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
NANCY A BERRYHILL,
Commissioner of Social Security,
CASE NO. 3:17-CV-003-MSH
Social Security Appeal
The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge’s
(ALJ’s) determination, denied Plaintiff’s application for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income, finding that he is not disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act and Regulations. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner’s decision
was in error and seeks review under the relevant provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42
U.S.C. § 1383(c). All administrative remedies have been exhausted. Both parties filed
their written consents for all proceedings to be conducted by the United States Magistrate
Judge, including the entry of a final judgment directly appealable to the Eleventh Circuit
Court of Appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3).
The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is limited to a determination of
whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards
were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam).
“Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a
preponderance. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this
court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court’s role in
reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court may
neither decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner. 1 Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). It must,
however, decide if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision.
Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980) (per curiam). The court must
scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s factual
findings. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). However, even
if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, it must be affirmed if
substantial evidence supports it. Id.
The Plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that she is unable to perform her
previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001 (11th Cir. 1986). The Plaintiff’s burden is
a heavy one and is so stringent that it has been described as bordering on the unrealistic.
Credibility determinations are left to the Commissioner and not to the courts. Carnes v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1991). It is also up to the Commissioner and not to the
courts to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir.
1986) (per curiam); see also Graham v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986).
Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1083 (5th Cir. 1981). 2 A Plaintiff seeking Social
Security disability benefits must demonstrate that she suffers from an impairment that
prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a twelve-month period.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In addition to meeting the requirements of these statutes, in order
to be eligible for disability payments, a Plaintiff must meet the requirements of the
Commissioner’s regulations promulgated pursuant to the authority given in the Social
Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 et seq.
Under the Regulations, the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure to determine
if a Plaintiff is disabled. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). First, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff is
working. Id. If not, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff has an impairment
which prevents the performance of basic work activities. Id. Second, the Commissioner
determines the severity of the Plaintiff’s impairment or combination of impairments. Id.
Third, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff’s severe impairment(s) meets or
equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of Part 404 of the Regulations (the “Listing”).
Id. Fourth, the Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff’s residual functional
capacity can meet the physical and mental demands of past work. Id. Fifth and finally, the
Commissioner determines whether the Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity, age,
education, and past work experience prevent the performance of any other work. In
In Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc), the Eleventh
Circuit adopted as binding precedent all decision of the former Fifth Circuit rendered prior to
October 1, 1981.
arriving at a decision, the Commissioner must consider the combined effects of all of the
alleged impairments, without regard to whether each, if considered separately, would be
disabling. Id. The Commissioner’s failure to apply correct legal standards to the evidence
is grounds for reversal. Id.
Plaintiff Brian Jason Neuleib filed applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income on November 30, 2012, alleging that he became disabled to
work on June 1, 2009. His claims were denied initially on September 24, 2013, and on
reconsideration on November 14, 2013. He filed a written request for an evidentiary
hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 8, 2014, and the hearing was
held on June 25, 2015. Plaintiff appeared with his attorney and gave testimony, as did his
mother and an impartial vocational expert (VE). Tr. 19. On August 3, 2015, the ALJ
issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff’s applications. Tr. 16-35. He sought
review from the Appeals Council on August 13, 2015, but was denied on November 9,
2016. Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to him under the Social
Security Act, Plaintiff brings this action seeking judicial review of the final decision by the
Commissioner to deny his claims. This case is ripe for review.
STATEMENT OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE
Plaintiff was thirty-three years old on his alleged onset of disability date. Tr. 16, 98.
He has a general equivalency diploma and prior work experience as a laborer, in sales, and
as a graphic designer. Tr. 93, 236, 238. In his applications he alleged that he is disabled
to work as a result of depression, bipolar disorder, learning disability, skin rash, and
obesity. Tr. 237, 285.
In conducting the five-step sequential evaluation process for deciding whether
Plaintiff is disabled, the ALJ found, at step two, that Plaintiff has the severe impairment of
bipolar disorder. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Finding 3, Tr. 21. The ALJ
specifically analyzed Plaintiff’s asserted depression and learning disability and found them
to be non-medically determinable. Plaintiff never alleged disability due to Asperger’s
Syndrome and denied to a consultative psychologist that he had ever received such a
diagnosis. However, the ALJ discussed it in his written decision because Plaintiff’s parents
told the consultant that he had been diagnosed with the disorder at an unspecified date
between twenty-four and twenty-six years of age. The ALJ found the alleged Asperger’s
diagnosis to also be a non-medically determinable impairment.
He also considered
Plaintiff’s obesity but found it to be a non-severe impairment. Tr. 21-22. The ALJ
completed his step two analysis by stating he had considered all of Plaintiff’s symptoms
and limitations in formulating Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (RFC). Tr. 22.
At step three, he found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination
of impairments which meets or equals the severity of a listed impairment set forth in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 4, Tr. 22-23. Between steps three and
four the ALJ formulated an RFC assessment which permits Plaintiff to perform the full
range of work at all exertional levels but with restrictions to simple work with routine,
repetitive tasks and no fast-paced production. He further limited Plaintiff to jobs with
simple instructions and decisions as well as minor and infrequent changes in the work
process and no more than occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and
supervisors for no more than one-third of the work day. Finding 5, Tr. 24-29.
At step four, the ALJ found that this restricted RFC would not permit Plaintiff to
return to any past relevant work. Finding 6, Tr. 29. However, the VE testified that there
are jobs available to Plaintiff which he can do within his RFC. The ALJ then found, at step
five, that he can work as a golf range attendant, sexton, or return goods sorter and that such
jobs exist both in the national economy and in the state of Georgia. Finding 10, Tr. 30.
The ALJ thus found Plaintiff to be not disabled to work. Finding 11, Tr. 31.
I. Sufficiency of the ALJ’s Mental RFC calculation.
Plaintiff first contends that despite giving “great weight” to the opinion of a
consultative psychologist, the ALJ failed to include limitations found by the psychologist
in formulating the RFC and did not explain why. Pl’s. Br. 1. John Grace, Psy.D.,
conducted a psychological evaluation of Plaintiff on September 4, 2013. Ex. 5F. Dr.
Grace noted that Plaintiff’s last full-time employment came as a computer designer from
2000 until 2004 when it ended due to “lack of sales,” as described by Plaintiff. Tr. 365.
Plaintiff told Dr. Grace that while working he was able to adapt well and could perform
assigned tasks and duties adequately. However, he described himself as unwilling to work
because he is “too burned out.” Tr. 365. Plaintiff reported problems with supervision,
concentration, and remaining alert. He attributed his difficulties to his own lack of
attention, problems with authority, and simple lack of desire to comply with instructions.
He reported that he can shop, manage money, drive a car, use a cell phone, operate a
computer, prepare meals, do laundry and housekeeping, and care for his pets but prefers
“daydreaming all day.” Tr. 265.
Plaintiff denied having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. In a separate
interview, his parents told Dr. Grace that he been given that diagnosis some years earlier,
but they were unable to say when or by whom. Objective clinical testing established him
as focused, attentive and not distracted, and coherent. Dr. Grace found him moderately
impaired in responding to criticism and remaining attentive over an eight-hour work day,
but found that “[Plaintiff’s] ability to take and follow instructions in a typical workplace is
considered unimpaired.” Tr. 370. Dr. Grace also noted that Plaintiff himself “believes
that he is capable of following directions and completing simple tasks on a work site if
given instructions in a clear, direct, and simple manner.” Id. Dr. Grace also said
“[Plaintiff’s] ability to make simple work-related rational decisions . . . is considered
adequate” and “his ability to be able to maintain regular attendance is considered
unimpaired.” Id. He found Plaintiff to “not have a history of problems with coworkers”
and stated that “his ability to work in close proximity and cooperatively with others is
considered unlimited.” Id. Dr. Grace concluded by opining that “overall the prognosis
for this individual resuming full-time employment is good in a structured and supportive
environment.” Tr. 371.
The ALJ expressly gave significant weight to portions of Dr. Grace’s findings and
partial weight to his opinions, carefully explaining why with specific references to the
record. Tr. 25-28. He accommodated the limitations Dr. Grace found by restricting
Plaintiff to simple work that is routine, repetitive, and does not require fast-paced
production, but involves simple instructions and work-related decisions with only minor
and infrequent changes and limited interaction with supervisors and coworkers. Tr. 23-24.
The ALJ’s mental RFC formulation fully accounted for Dr. Grace’s findings and opinions.
Lewen v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 605 F. App’x 967 (11th Cir. 2015). Thus, Plaintiff’s first
claim of error has no merit.
II. The ALJ’s assessment of Plaintiff’s Credibility
Next, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to give adequate reasons for discounting
his credibility. Pl. Br. 2. The record refutes this claim. The ALJ discounted Plaintiff’s
credibility for three express reasons. First, both Plaintiff’s treating physician and the
consultative psychologist pointed out that he was being successfully treated with
medication. Tr. 25, 310-351, 366. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206 (11th Cir. 2005).
Second, the ALJ discounted Plaintiff’s credibility due to a lack of objective medical
evidence to support his subjective complaints. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(2), 416.929(c)(2);
Watson v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1169 (11th Cir. 1984). Third, he discounted Plaintiff’s
credibility because of the intermittent and conservative treatment regimen Plaintiff sought
and received. Tr. 387, 45. Falcon v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 827 (11th Cir. 1984). The ALJ
provided sufficient express reasoning for his decision to discount Plaintiff’s credibility.
Thus, Plaintiff’s second assertion of error is also without merit.
III. The Appeals Council’s Decision
Finally, Plaintiff contends that the Appeals Council erred in its consideration of what
he contends is a new and material psychological evaluation. Pl. Br. 2. On September 24,
2016, Matt Butryn, Ph.D., saw Plaintiff and his mother at the request of his attorneys. Dr.
Butryn prepared a report. Ex. 7F, Tr. 391-405. The report’s findings contradict those of
Plaintiff’s treating physician as well as the consultative examiner. It is also inconsistent
with Plaintiff’s own reported activities of daily living and is based almost exclusively on a
single two-hour interview of Plaintiff and his mother. The Appeals Council received and
considered the report but found that it did not render the decision of the ALJ contrary to
the weight of record evidence.
Plaintiff’s own treating physician, David Ringer, M.D., who has treated him since
before 2011, described him as “very lazy.” Ex. 6F/12. Plaintiff neither followed his
physician’s recommendations nor sought additional care. Tr. 27. He left his last job due
to what he said was a lack of business and expressed no interest in employment, not because
he was unable to work, but because he was “too burned out.” The ALJ did not believe him
and the record amply supports that conclusion.
Dr. Butryn’s report has been read and reviewed by the Court and found insufficient
to render the denial of benefits erroneous. Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253
(11th Cir. 2007). The Appeals Council correctly concluded that there was no reason to
further review Plaintiff’s claim. Therefore, Plaintiff’s third, and final, contention of error
is also meritless.
For the reasons stated above, the determination of the Social Security Commissioner
SO ORDERED, this 17th day of October, 2017.
/s/ Stephen Hyles
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE 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?