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Harris v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

September 30, 2014



STACI G. CORNELIUS, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, Susan Gail Harris, seeks review, pursuant to section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies. (Doc. 12 at 2). This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to final, dispositive magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 10). After consideration of the record and for the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff was fifty-one (51) years old when the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued the decision denying her claim. (Tr. 28).[1] Plaintiff has at least a high school level education, having attended some college, and previously worked as a transport unit specialist, concession stand worker, cleaner, caregiver, and quality control inspector. ( Id. ).

Plaintiff filed her application for SSI on November 29, 2010, alleging she initially became disabled on November 20, 2010, due to pain in her back, neck, hips, right shoulder, and right knee. (Tr. 20, 24). Plaintiff's application was denied (Tr. 75-80), and she requested a hearing before an ALJ (Tr. 85-86). The hearing was held on October 29, 2012, and the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim on December 11, 2012. (Tr. 20, 30). This denial became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 15, 2013, when the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-5). Plaintiff filed this action on June 18, 2013. (Doc. 1).

A. Plaintiff's Medical Records

Plaintiff's medical records reveal that she sought treatment for pain on four occasions from September 2010 through June 2012. (Tr. at 25-26). In September 2010, Plaintiff visited her primary physician, Dr. Adrienne Carter, complaining of back pain, neck pain, leg spasms, and difficulty sleeping. Dr. Carter ordered X-rays, which indicated, in part, severe degenerative disc disease at L-5 to S-1 and degenerative disc disease at C5-6. (Tr. at 196). Dr. Carter prescribed anti-inflammatory medication, a muscle relaxant, and a corticosteroid. (Tr. at 25). The records from Dr. Carter also reflect ongoing treatment for scoliosis, degenerative joint disease, and pain radiating to Plaintiff's lower extremities. (Doc. 12 at 5).

Approximately six months later in March of 2011, Plaintiff visited the emergency room complaining of chronic shoulder and back pain. (Tr. at 210). A physical exam revealed Plaintiff's neck was supple and tender and her lower back had para-vertebral tenderness and muscle spasm. (Tr. 210-212). The emergency room physician noted Plaintiff's pain improved with medication, and she was released with prescriptions for an anti-inflammatory and a corticosteroid. (Tr. 212). Soon thereafter, in April 2011, Plaintiff returned to Dr. Carter, who changed Plaintiff's prescriptions to a different anti-inflammatory and an anti-seizure medication. (Tr. 209). The records from both the emergency room and Dr. Carter reflect Plaintiff continued to smoke cigarettes. (Tr. 209, 211). Additionally, Dr. Carter noted Plaintiff's drug screen was positive for cocaine. (Tr. 209, 190).

Over one year later in June 2012, Plaintiff returned to Dr. Carter complaining of pain. (Tr. 233). Plaintiff noted she did not attempt to fill her previous prescriptions because of the cost. However, Plaintiff further admitted that she did not look into how much the prescriptions would have cost and stated that even $5 would be too much to pay for a prescription. ( Id. ). Plaintiff also acknowledged that she continued to smoke cigarettes, drink wine and use crack cocaine. ( Id. ).

In addition, Plaintiff underwent a consultative examination performed by Dr. Prameela Goli on May 17, 2012, at the request of the Social Security Administration. (Tr. 216-24). Dr. Goli noted Plaintiff's complaints of pain and conducted a physical examination, finding limited range of motion of the shoulders, loss of lumbar lordosis, and a positive straight leg raise. (Tr. 216). Dr. Goli also detected a reduction in range of motion in the lumbar and cervical spine and observed that Plaintiff exhibited normal gait and motor strength and was able to get on and off the examination table without trouble. (Tr. 217). Dr. Goli concluded Plaintiff suffered from: (1) severe neck pain from degenerative disc disease with no radiculopathy; (2) bilateral rotator cuff tendonitis; and (3) lumbar disc syndrome. (Tr. 217).

Dr. Goli also completed a Medical Source Statement (MSS), concluding Plaintiff would be able to lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and, during an eight hour work day, be able to stand for three hours, walk for three hours, and sit for four hours. (Tr. 220-21). Dr. Goli further opined that Plaintiff could sit for two hours without interruption, stand for between one and two hours without interruption, and walk for between one and two hours without interruption. (Tr. 221). In addition, Dr. Goli determined that Plaintiff could walk without a cane. ( Id. ). Dr. Goli concluded that Plaintiff would only occasionally be able to climb stairs and ramps, climb ladders or scaffolds, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (Tr. 222). Likewise, Dr. Goli concluded that Plaintiff would only occasionally be able to tolerate exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, driving, humidity, dust odors and fumes, extreme temperatures, and vibrations. (Tr. 223).

B. Plaintiff's Testimony:

Plaintiff testified she is unable to work because of pain in her back, neck, right shoulder, hips, and right knee. (Tr. 45-46). She complained that her right knee swells and occasionally "gives out." ( Id. at 46). Plaintiff claimed her use of a cane on the day of the hearing was due to her knee problems. ( Id. at 48). Plaintiff estimated that she could walk approximately one city block before needing to sit and rest. ( Id. ). Plaintiff testified her hips get numb and affect her ability to sit or stand, she could stand or sit for only fifteen minutes at a time before experiencing pain, and her back pain radiated down to her hips and legs. ( Id. at 46-48). Due to shoulder pain and decreased range of motion, Plaintiff testified that her son must comb her hair, and she estimated that she could not lift a gallon of milk ( Id. at 47, 49). Using a ten point scale, with ten being severe and extreme pain for which she would seek emergency medical treatment, Plaintiff rated her average daily pain as a nine out of ten. ( Id. at 49). Plaintiff testified she spent almost the entirety of an average day lying down due to the intensity of her pain and that she relied upon her son to care for her. ( Id. at 46).

C. Vocational Expert Testimony:

During the hearing, a vocational expert testified that a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's Residual Function Capacity could perform light work. This work included jobs as a ticket taker and cashier. (Tr. 65-72).


Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied proper legal standards. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). A district 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) (citations omitted). 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 ...

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