U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Reviews Denial of Social Security Benefits

When applying for Social Security benefits, it is necessary to show the physical and mental health conditions from which you suffer and how these cause your inability to work. A recent, unpublished decision from the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Kent vs. Acting Commissioner of the Soc. Sec. Admin. (No. 15-15059), provides insight into what is required for an award of SSI benefits. In this case, the SSI applicant suffered from severe impairments of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obesity, and migraines. She appealed the denial of her application when the administrative law judge (ALJ) chose to give little credit to the testimony of her treating psychiatrist about the extent of her mental limitations.

When weighing medical opinions, an ALJ is required by case law to give a treating physician’s opinion “substantial or considerable weight,” unless she or he can articulate good cause for not doing so. This occurs when the treating doctor’s testimony is not supported by evidence, the evidence actually points to an opposite finding, or the the opinion of the treating physician was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor’s own medical records. The appellate court felt that the ALJ in the earlier proceeding demonstrated good cause and was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

The treating psychiatrist performed a mental residual functional capacity assessment and labeled the applicant as having marked restrictions in her ability to perform work-related tasks, from performing simple instructions to getting along with co-workers to responding to changes in the workplace. The doctor then opined that she had “extreme” restrictions in several areas, including her ability to understand and remember detailed instructions, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, and complete a normal workday and workweek, performing at a consistent pace. The ALJ, however, noted that the psychiatrist’s assessment didn’t line up with the testimony as a whole, in which there were findings of the applicant having a “consistently fair ability in memory, concentration, and attention,” “no more than moderate symptoms,” and “no symptoms to only mild symptoms.”

The ALJ also noted that while the applicant could not work in the same job, she could work in other positions that exist in the general economy. While there was a record of significant instability several years ago, the ALJ and the appellate court pointed out that the applicant was experiencing several life stressors at the time, including the death of her husband and an ex-husband stalking her. This was followed by a two-day stint at a mental health facility after an accidental overdose, but she was working part-time within the year. The appellate court especially focused on the continued improvement with treatment, since the applicant’s mental assessment scores rose higher with time outside stressful life events. Based on this collection of observations, the Circuit Court affirmed the determination of the ALJ that the applicant was not disabled.

Applications for SSI must be consistent and backed by evidence at a proceeding. The Florida Social Security attorneys at Donaldson & Weston have the experience you need to assist you with your application for Social Security benefits. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 772-266-5555 or 561-299-3999.

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Florida District Court of Appeal Reviews Grocery Store Slip-and-Fall Case, South Florida Injury Lawyer Blog, March 9, 2016