United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MILTON A. CARTER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
SONJA F. BIVINS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Milton A. Carter (hereinafter "Plaintiff") brings this action seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and 1381, et seq. On April 11, 2014, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 18). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.
I. Procedural History
Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on June 25, 2010. (Tr. at 78-79, 154, 158). Plaintiff alleged that he has been disabled since September 15, 2008, due to degenerative joint disease, back and knee pain, and post traumatic stress disorder. (Id. at 180, 184). Plaintiff's applications were denied and upon timely request, he was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Katie H. Pierce (hereinafter "ALJ") on December 13, 2011. (Id. at 47). Plaintiff attended the hearing with his counsel and provided testimony related to his claims. (Id. at 53). A vocational expert ("VE") also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 59). On January 20, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 42). After considering additional information, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 5, 2013. (Id. at 1). The parties waived oral argument (Doc. 17), and agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
II. Issue on Appeal
Whether the ALJ erred in not giving "controlling weight" to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist?
III. Factual Background
Plaintiff was born on August 21, 1977, and was thirty-four years of age at the time of his administrative hearing on December 13, 2011. (Tr. 47, 53). Plaintiff testified that he went through the twelfth grade in school and served in the military from 1997 to 2000. (Id. at 53-54). Plaintiff further testified that he worked as an electrical helper and a laborer from 2007 to 2008, and that he last worked in November 2009 as a cable television installer. (Id. at 53, 185).
According to Plaintiff, he lives alone, although sometimes, his three-year-old son stays with him. (Id. at 56). Plaintiff reported that he is able to care for his personal needs and that his mother and his son's mother assist him with preparing meals and performing other household chores. (Id. at 56, 198). Plaintiff also reported that he is able to shop and go to church. (Id. at 199, 201-02). According to Plaintiff, he does not have any bills and does not have a bank account, but he is able to count change. (Id. at 201-02).
Plaintiff testified that he is in treatment for alcohol and drug abuse and that he has been in remission since January 2010. (Id. at 54-55). Plaintiff listed his medications as Motrin (for pain), Paxil (for depression), Trazadone (for sleep), and a muscle relaxer. (Id. at 187).
A. Standard of Review
In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. Martin v. Sullivan , 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen , 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan , 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler , 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance" and consists of "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion."). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable, as well as unfavorable, to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen , 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986); Short v. Apfel , 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).
An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as the "inability 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant has proven his disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
In the case sub judice, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2008, his alleged onset date and that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), major depressive disorder ("MDD"), osteoarthritis of the knees, and cocaine, cannabis, and alcohol dependence. (Tr. 20-21). In addition, the ALJ determined that, taking into account Plaintiff's substance use disorders, his impairments meet sections 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 21).
The ALJ found that Plaintiff was credible concerning the following symptoms and limitations: Plaintiff "has exhibited behavioral changes associated with the use of drugs/alcohol, which exacerbates his mental health symptomology and lowers his cognition;" he is prone to recurrent episodes of mental health symptoms and stopped taking his psychotropic medications when using and abusing drugs/alcohol; and he "has been clean and sober since his admission to the VA hospital in June 2010, which is generally consistent with the treatment records." (Id. at 22). The ALJ further found that if Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, his remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform basic work activities; therefore, he would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. (Id. at 26). However, the ALJ concluded that if Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 27).
In addition, the ALJ found that if Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would have the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of medium work, with the following restrictions: he can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, balance and climb ramps/stairs and occasionally climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolding. In addition, he can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks, have brief superficial contact with the public, work in close proximity to others, work independently, maintain attention and concentration for two hours at a time before needing to take a regularly scheduled break or meal, and adapt to minimal changes in the work setting. (Id. at 29).
Utilizing the testimony of a VE, the ALJ determined that if Plaintiff stopped the substance abuse, he would be unable to perform past relevant work given his RFC. (Id. at 39). The ALJ again relied upon the testimony of the VE to conclude that if Plaintiff discontinued his substance abuse, considering his residual functional capacity for a range of medium work, as well as his age, education and work experience, there are other jobs existing in the national economy that he is able to perform, such as "hand packer, " "cloth tearer, " "laborer, " and "drier attendant, " all of which are classified as medium and unskilled. (Id. at 40). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's substance abuse is a contributing factor material to ...