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Alvarado v. Colvin

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 1, 2016

Eric Alvarado, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued April 1, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. l:14-cv-01090 - James E. Shadid, Judge.

          Before Posner, Easterbrook, and Williams, Circuit Judges.


         In 1993, Eric Alvarado was granted disability benefits due to his impairments, which included a severe learning disorder. In 2004, the Social Security Administration stopped paying those benefits after determining that, despite his severe learning disorder, Alvarado could do certain relatively simple jobs. Because that determination was supported by substantial evidence, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Alvarado was born in 1967. He was first awarded disability benefits in 1993, when it was determined that he had suffered from severe impairments since birth. He was granted childhood disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income. The Social Security Act requires the Social Security Administration to periodically review whether a recipient remains disabled. Alvarado's eligibility was reviewed and affirmed in 1999. But in a 2004 review, the Administration determined that his disability had ended, so his benefits were discontinued.

         Alvarado challenged that determination, but a hearing officer upheld it. After a hearing that included testimony from Alvarado, his family and friends, and experts, an Administrative Law Judge also upheld the decision. The Appeals Council denied review and Alvarado sought review in federal court. But based on the parties' agreement, the district court ordered the case remanded for further fact finding. On remand, the same ALJ made the same determination-that Alvarado's disability had ended.

         The ALJ wrote a 39-page opinion explaining her decision. In short, she assumed the correctness of the prior determinations that Alvarado was disabled, but found that the evidence showed his disability had ended. She found that he continued to suffer from a severe learning disorder, which prevented him from performing many jobs, but which did not prevent him from doing simple jobs that did not require interaction with the public. Because a significant number of such jobs exist in Illinois, she concluded that Alvarado was not disabled. The Appeals Council denied review, a federal magistrate judge recommended affirmance, the district judge affirmed, and this appeal followed.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. ALJ Did Not Violate Remand Order

         Before we address the merits, we note that many of Alvarado's arguments proceed from a faulty premise: that the ALJ violated the remand order. Alvarado suggests that the order barred the ALJ from evaluating any evidence dating from before 1999 (when Alvarado's eligibility was last affirmed). But that is not what the order says. To the contrary, by directing the ALJ to compare evidence from before 1999 with evidence from after 1999, the order required the ALJ to evaluate the earlier evidence.

         To be sure, the order limited the scope of the remand, but the limit was not exceeded. In the typical case, the Administration cannot terminate a recipient's benefits without finding that he experienced some "medical improvement" that allows him to work even though he previously could not. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(c). There are exceptions to the medical improvement requirement, under which a recipient can be found newly ineligible even if he did not improve medically. The most relevant exception is where "substantial evidence demonstrates that any prior disability decision was in error." Id. § 404.1594(d)(4). The remand order limited the ALJ's ability to terminate Alvarado's benefits on the basis of an exception to the medical improvement requirement.[1] The ALJ did not violate the order because she did not apply any exception-she explicitly found that Alvarado had improved.

         B. Substantial Evidence Supports ALJ's Decision

         Because the Appeals Council denied review, we review the ALJ's decision directly. Tumminaro v. Astrue, 671 F.3d 629, 632 (7th Cir. 2011). We will affirm as long as the ALJ's findings were supported by "substantial evidence/' 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, " Richardson v. Perales,402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). We will not decide the facts anew, reweigh ...

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