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Latasha Gosha v. Michael J. Astrue

February 6, 2012

LATASHA GOSHA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry F. Moorer United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Latasha Gosha ("Plaintiff" or "Gosha") filed an application for Social Security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on April 22, 2008, for a period of disability which allegedly began March 15, 2008. (Pl. Br. 122-24). Plaintiff's application was denied on July 16, 2008. (Tr. 61-65). Upon timely request by the Plaintiff, Gosha appeared before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on November 4, 2009. (Tr. 35-58). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 11, 2010. (Tr. 19-30). Once the Appeals Council rejected review on September 24, 2010 (Tr. 6-8) the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").*fn1 See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The Court has jurisdiction over this lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and the parties consent to the undersigned rendering a final judgment in this lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 (c)(1) and M.D. Ala. LR 73.1. For the reasons that follow, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

I. NATUREOF THE CASE

Gosha seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. United States District Courts may conduct limited review of such decisions to determine whether they comply with applicable law and are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405 (2006). The Court may affirm, reverse and remand with instructions, or reverse and render a judgment. Id.

II. BACKGROUND

Gosha was born on February 13, 1982 and was 26 years old at the time of the alleged onset of disability. (Tr. 130). Gosha is a tenth grade drop out but has a GED. (Tr. 40). Gosha held several jobs including cook, day care teacher, cashier, production worker at a factory, sanitation worker, certified nurse's assistant, and a production line worker at a chicken processing factory. (Tr. 160-68).

At the hearing Gosha said her disability began on March 15, 2008, after a vehicle collision. (Tr. 41). Gosha claims she suffers from seizures, asthma, headaches, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia which renders her disabled. (Tr. 41-44). All medical records from by Gosha show an expansive medical history beginning after March, 2008 through November, 2009. (Tr. 25-29).

The record reveals the ALJ took into account that Gosha was seen by multiple doctors over a period of years for an assortment of medical issues which all allegedly stem from a vehicle accident on March 15, 2008. (Tr. 19-30). Immediately after the accident Gosha had a "computed tomography (CT) of her brain taken on March 15, 2008 [which] was negative." Id. An MRI on April 9, 2008, which showed "an 8mm pineal cyst but was otherwise unremarkable." (Tr. 25). On April 18, 2008 Gosha had normal results from an "electroencephalogram (EEG)." Id. The ALJ had results from "an EEG performed on May 11, 2009, [that] was abnormal due to occasional left temporal slow waves with disorganized background. An MRI of the claimant's brain the following day identified no abnormalities." Id.

A series of medical visits to the Southeast Alabama Medical Center where Dr. Sher Ghori, M.D., treated Gosha revealed "the claimant's seizures had not been very well controlled during the summer of 2008 but also noted the claimant had been incorrectly taking a weaker dosage of her medication." Id. "The medical record shows the claimant has repeatedly failed to comply with prescribed treatment, which diminishes her persuasiveness." (Tr. 28) Medical records indicate several times Gosha did not take the correct medication or the proper dose to prevent seizures. (Tr. 25-28).

Gosha testified that she suffers from depression, bipolarism, paranoia, and panic attacks but the ALJ noted that "[t]he claimant has not generally received the type of medical treatments one would expect if her mental condition was totally disabling." (Tr. 26). Of note, Dr. J. Christopher Strunk, M.D., gave Gosha a fair prognosis and stated that she "should do well with routine outpatient treatment." Id. The Global Assessment of Function (GAF) of 40-45 was taken into consideration by the ALJ; however, based on 65 Fed. Reg. 50746, 50764-65 (Aug. 21 2000), as well as DeBoard v. Barnhart, no. 05-6854 (6th Cir. Dec. 15, 2006) the ALJ stated that "the underlying findings of the medical and non-medical evidence are found to be more relevant in determining the claimant's residual functional capacity than a GAF score, which lacks reliability in disability determinations. (Tr. 26). Dr. McGinn and Dr. Ghori found that Gosha is "fully disabled due to her mental condition." (Tr. 28) Dr. Shakir Meghani, M.D., at Southeast Psychiatric Services "opined the claimant's mental activities showed marked impairment with few exceptions" but the ALJ noted that this opinion "is inconsistent with the claimant's conservative medical treatment, his own own treatment records, and with the opinions of other examining and non-examining physicians." (Tr. 28). "For these reasons, Dr. Meghani's opinion is given little weight." Id. Dr. Joseph McGinn, M.D., who worked with Dr. Meghani at Southeast Psychiatric Services stated that "the claimant's behavior was normal despite her reports of hallucinations." (Tr. 26). After being treated by a series of doctors for her mental conditions Gosha was last seen on October 16, 2009, by Dr. Strunk. Dr. Strunk found Gosha to have major depression with psychotic symptoms but stated that she needed to "better compl[y] with medications and a stable outpatient regiment to improve." Id.

Several medical evaluations reveal Gosha is a malingerer and the ALJ properly took the evaluations into consideration to assess Gosha. (Tr. 27-29). The ALJ also noted that "[t]he claimant's lack of medical treatment for her hypertension and diabetes mellitus indicates these impairments are not disabling." (Tr. 27). Gosha's medical records show periods of greater than five months wherein her treating physician for hypertension and diabetes "did not prescribe any treatment of these conditions" and "the most recent list of her prescription medications does not include any medications to treat these conditions." Id.

The ALJ found Gosha's credibility to be "undermined by inconsistencies between her testimony and the medical record." Id. For instance, Gosha testified that she quit drinking alcohol after her accident on March 15, 2008. Medical records from Dr. Saeda Malik, M.D., Gosha's neurologist, noted "a high level of alcohol" in Gosha's blood work over a year after the accident. Id. A second doctor, Dr. Joseph McGinn, M.D., "diagnosed the claimant with alcohol abuse on June 19, 2009, and Dr. Malik included alcohol abuse in his assessment of the claimant on July 14, 2009." Id. Gosha's credibility was also compromised when the ALJ noted that "claimant []testified she saw Dr. Malik and Dr. Meghani as frequently as twice a week until her insurance forced her to restrict the number of visits." Id. Medical records show only one month in which Gosha was seen more than once in the month, much less more than once a week. Id. The medical records also show Gosha claims to live by herself but at the hearing Gosha testified that she lived with her mother and two children for assistance. (Tr. 27-28).

The entirety of Gosha's records were evaluated by two State agency medical consultants, Dr. Donald Hinton, Ph.D., and Dr. Francis W. Sullivan, M.D., who both conclude Gosha can work. The ALJ properly gave greater weight to the opinions of Dr. Hinton and Dr. Sullivan because "Dr. Meghani's opinion is inconsistent with the claimant's conservative medical treatment, his own treatment records, and with the opinions of other examining and non-examining physicians. (Tr. 28-29). Additionally, Dr. Hinton's assessment was found to be consistent with that of Dr. Ghostley, who reported that "[f]rom a psychiatric perspective, [the claimant's] ability to understand, remember, and carry out instructions, as well as to respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and work pressures in a work setting, is largely unimpaired." (Tr. 28). Dr. Sullivan gave Gosha limitations on her ability to work, including "lifting and carrying up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sitting for a total of about 6 hours in a 8-hour workday; standing and/or walking for a total of about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday." (Tr. 29). However the limitations placed on Gosha by Dr. Sullivan did not exclude work and "no treating physician has opined the claimant requires greater physical restrictions." Id.

III. STANDARDOF REVIEW

The Court reviews a social security case to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal standards. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). The Court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner," but rather it "must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it supported by substantial evidence."

Miles v. Chater,84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)); see also Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (stating the court should not re-weigh the evidence). The Court must find the Commissioner's decision conclusive "if it is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied." Kelly v. Apfel, 185 F.3d 1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997)).

Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla -- i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) and MacGregor v. Bowen, 785 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)); Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) and Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401, 91 S.Ct. at 1427).

If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the court would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and even if the court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991). The district court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129,131 (11th Cir. 1986)).

The district court will reverse a Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Keeton v. Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (internal citations omitted). There is no presumption that the Secretary's conclusions of law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991).

IV. STATUTORYAND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

The Social Security Act's general disability insurance benefits program ("DIB") provides income to individuals who are forced into involuntary, premature retirement, provided they are both insured and disabled, regardless of indigence.*fn2 See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Social Security Act's Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") is a separate and distinct program. SSI is a general public assistance measure providing an additional resource to the aged, blind, and disabled to assure that their income does not fall below the poverty line.*fn3 Eligibility for SSI is based upon proof of indigence and disability. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C). Despite the fact they are separate programs, the law and regulations governing a claim for DIB and a claim for SSI are identical; therefore, claims for DIB and SSI are treated identically for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is disabled. Patterson v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1455, 1456 n. 1 (11th Cir. 1986). Applicants under DIB and SSI must provide "disability" within the meaning of the Social Security Act which defines disability in virtually identical language for both programs. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). A person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable to:

Engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable 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 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A "physical or mental impairment" is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 42

U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

The Commissioner of Social Security employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is entitled to benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2010).

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?

(2) Is the person's impairment(s) severe?

(3) Does the person's impairment(s) meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. ...


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