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Washington v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

August 12, 2014

CORNELIUS WASHINGTON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOHN E. OTT, District Judge.

Plaintiff Cornelius Washington brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Doc. 1).[1] The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference dated January 14, 2013. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. (Doc. 9). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), FED. R. CIV. P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on February 10, 2010, alleging disability beginning December 31, 2007. (R. 132-36).[2] His claim was denied initially. (R. 68). He then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on December 6, 2011. (R. 36-67). The Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. (R. 38). The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled.[3] (R. 32).

The Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision and submitted additional evidence regarding his disability. (R. 16, 214-54, 500-31). The Appeals Council declined the Plaintiff's request for review on April 17, 2013. (R. 1-7). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff then filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), asserting that the findings of the Commissioner are not based upon substantial evidence and that improper legal standards were applied. (Doc. 1).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW[4]

The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This court must "scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. It is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Id.

The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[5] The Regulations define "disabled" as "the inability to do 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 twelve (12) months." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a "physical or mental impairment" which "must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner][6];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to the formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). "Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job." Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

IV. DISCUSSION

A. The Facts

At the time of the ALJ's decision, the Plaintiff was twenty years old with a limited education, having left school during grade twelve without receiving a diploma. (R. 44, 49). Prior to his alleged disability onset date, he worked for a few months at a car wash and three fast food restaurants. (R. 146). His application for disability benefits lists his conditions as bipolar disorder-type 2, impulsive control disorder, and asthma. (R. 144). He alleges in his application that he stopped working because of these conditions. ( Id. )

In 2006, at age 16, the Plaintiff was admitted to Mountain View Hospital after engaging in threatening behavior at school. (R. 255). He was diagnosed with "bipolar II disorder" and impulse control disorder. (R. 256). He was prescribed Risperdal, an antipsychotic medication. ( Id. ) He was discharged after a short stay, with his treating physician assessing his prognosis as "[g]ood with continued treatment on an out-patient basis, medication compliance and positive family support." ( Id. )

The Plaintiff was examined by psychologist June Nichols on April 15, 2010. (R. 336-39). Dr. Nichols assessed the Plaintiff as suffering from impulse control disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). (R. 339). She assigned the Plaintiff a Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") score of 65[7] and concluded that the Plaintiff's "ability to relate interpersonally and withstand the pressures of everyday work is mildly compromised" and that he does not have ...


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