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Sekel v. Colvin

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

October 9, 2014

LISA MARIE SEKEL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.

I. Introduction

The plaintiff, Lisa Marie Sekel, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Ms. Sekel timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

Ms. Sekel was forty-eight years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and she has a tenth grade education. (Tr. at 19, 21, 31, 155, 160, 189.) Her past work experiences include employment as a housekeeper, assembly worker, warehouse worker and sterilizer. (Tr. at 19, 58-63, 160, 171, 189.) Ms. Sekel claims that she became disabled on January 19, 2005, due to heart problems, shoulder pain, neck pain, back pain, depression/anger issues, dizziness, and fatigue. (Tr. at 159.)

When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he or she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he or she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends on the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, he or she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him or her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience in order to determine if he or she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Sekel meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was insured through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 10, 12.) He further determined that Ms. Sekel has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 12.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease, left shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and tachycardia are considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. ( Id. ) However, he found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 13.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Sekel's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the following RFC: light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except no lifting over 10 pounds; no forceful gripping work bilaterally; no repetitive but frequent manipulative work bilaterally; and no work at unprotected heights, around dangerous machinery, and around open flames or bodies of water. ( Id. )

According to the ALJ, Ms. Sekel is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she is a "younger individual, " and she has a "limited education, " as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 19.) He determined that "[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is not disabled, ' whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills." ( Id. ) Even though Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light work, the ALJ used Medical-Vocational Rule 202.18 as a guideline for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as arcade attendant, parking lot attendant, and usher. ( Id. ) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 19, 2005, through the date of this decision." ( Id. )

II. Standard of Review

This Court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The Court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. "The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'" Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for "despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

III. Discussion

Ms. Sekel alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because the ALJ did not properly assess the credibility of her testimony in accordance with the Eleventh Circuit's "pain standard." (Doc. 7 at 5.) In particular, Ms. Sekel asserts that the ALJ's evaluation of her subjective complaints was improper and that the ALJ's conclusions are "not supported by substantial evidence and inconsistent with applicable law." ( Id. at 4.)

Disability benefits may not be paid solely on the basis of a claimant's own self-serving complaints. See 42 U.S.C § 423(d)(5)(A). However, subjective testimony of pain and other symptoms may establish the presence of a disabling impairment if it is supported by medical evidence. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995). To establish disability based upon pain and other subjective symptoms, "[t]he pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991)); see also Landry v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1551, 1553 (11th Cir. 1986).

The ALJ is permitted to discredit the plaintiff's subjective testimony of pain and other symptoms if he articulates explicit and adequate reasons for doing so. Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Soc. Sec. Rul. 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 (1996) ("[T]he adjudicator must carefully consider the individual's statements about symptoms with the rest of the relevant evidence in the case record in reaching a conclusion about the credibility of the individual's statements."). Although the Eleventh Circuit does not require explicit findings as to credibility, "the implication must be obvious to the reviewing court.'" Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210 ( quoting Foote, 67 F.3d at 1562). "[P]articular phrases or formulations" do not have to be cited in an ALJ's credibility determination, but ...


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