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Hargress v. Social Security Administration Commissioner

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

November 6, 2017

JOYCE HARGRESS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, COMMISSIONER, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 4:16-cv-01079-CLS

          Before HULL, MARCUS and FAY, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM:

         Joyce Hargress appeals the district court's decision affirming the denial of her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). After careful review, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND FACTS

         In May 2013, Hargress applied for disability benefits and alleged a disability onset date of January 21, 2013 due to her type II diabetes, excessive tiredness, and anxiety. After an August 12, 2014 hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined Hargress was not disabled and denied her applications for benefits.

         A. ALJ's Decision

         Applying the five-step evaluation process, the ALJ found that: (1) Hargress was insured through December 31, 2017 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 21, 2013; (2) Hargress had the severe impairments of morbid obesity, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoarthritis of the left hip and left leg, and diffuse disc bulges of the lumbar spine resulting in mild foraminal narrowing; (3) Hargress did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listed impairments; (4) Hargress had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of sedentary, unskilled work, but was unable to perform her past relevant work as a department manager of a retail store or battery parts assembler because they are not unskilled work; and (5) considering Hargress's age (40), high school education, work experience, and RFC, the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("the vocational grids") mandated a finding of "not disabled." Thus, the ALJ denied Hargress's applications.

         In assessing Hargress's RFC, the ALJ determined: (1) that Hargress's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause her alleged symptoms; and (2) that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms "are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision." The ALJ noted, among other things, that: (1) Hargress had never received emergency care or hospitalization for her diabetes mellitus or her musculoskeletal impairments; (2) she failed to mention musculoskeletal impairments in her disability report; (3) she described her pain as mild in some medical records, and reported that she was capable of lifting, sitting, standing, going up and down stairs, driving a car, reaching overhead, doing housework, and dressing herself; (4) based on diagnostic imaging, her degenerative joint disease and bilateral foraminal narrowing were described as mild and her disc bulging was described as diffuse; (5) apart from a positive straight left-sided leg raise test, she had not consistently produced abnormal musculoskeletal or extremity examinations and had a full range of motion with no evidence of instability; and (6) the record reflected that, when compliant with medication and treatment, Hargress's diabetes mellitus was stable.

         In evaluating the medical source opinions, the ALJ gave little weight to the opinion of one of Hargress's treating physician, Dr. Ochuko Odjegba, about Hargress's physical capacities. Dr. Odjegba completed a "Physical Capacities Form, " in which he indicated, inter alia, that Hargress, due to her back ache and hip pain, could sit for less than 30 minutes, stand for less than 15 minutes, and walk for less than 15 minutes at one time, that she could perform a task for only 30 minutes before needing a rest or break, and that he expected Hargress would need to lie down, sleep, or sit with her legs elevated for 6 hours in an 8-hour daytime period. The ALJ discounted Dr. Odjegba's opinion on the form because it was inconsistent with Dr. Odjegba's other treatment records and inconsistent with the record as a whole.

         B. Appeals Council's Decision

         Hargress asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision, and submitted additional medical records, some of which post-dated the ALJ's hearing decision of February 24, 2015. The Appeals Council denied her request for review. The Appeals Council stated that it had "looked at" the new records "from Jane Teschner, MD, dated March 2, 2015 through October 1, 2015, " "Daniel Sparks, MD, dated March 2, 2015 through June 15, 2015, " and "Trinity Medical Center, dated July 28, 2015, " and noted that the ALJ had decided Hargress's case "through February 24, 2015." The Appeals Council found that "[t]his new information is about a later time" and "[t]herefore, it does not affect the decision about whether you were disabled beginning on or before February 24, 2015." The Appeals Council advised Hargress that if she wanted the agency to consider whether she was disabled after February 24, 2015, she needed to apply again and that the new information she had submitted was "available in [her] electronic file for [her] to use in [her] new claim."[1]

         II. DISCUSSION

         On appeal, Hargress argues that: (1) the ALJ improperly assigned little weight to the opinion of Dr. Odjegba; (2) the ALJ's finding at the fifth step that Hargress was not disabled was not supported by substantial evidence; (3) the ALJ failed to comply with Social Security Ruling 16-3p ("SSR 16-3p"), enacted after the ALJ's decision, in evaluating the intensity and persistence of her symptoms; and (4) the Appeals Council failed to properly consider her new ...


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