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Harris v. Colvin

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

October 28, 2014

CHERYL HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

SONJA F. BIVINS, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Cheryl Harris (hereinafter "Plaintiff"), who is proceeding pro se, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her 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. This action was referred to the undersigned for report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Upon consideration of the administrative record and memoranda of the parties, it is RECOMMENDED 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 March 28, 2011. (Tr. 122). Plaintiff alleged that she has been disabled since March 18, 2011, due to diabetes, arthritis, hearing loss, anxiety, depression, and heart problems. (Id. at 100, 138). Plaintiff's applications were denied and upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Renee Blackmon Hagler (hereinafter "ALJ") on June 20, 2012. (Id. at 27). Plaintiff attended the hearing, pro se, and was apprised of her right to have counsel. She elected to proceed without counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Id. at 30, 32). Plaintiff's landlord/friend, as well as a vocational expert ("VE"), also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 42-43). On July 24, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 23). Plaintiff submitted additional correspondence to the Appeals Council, which the Appeals Council considered before denying review on September 7, 2013.[1] (Id. at 1-2, 4). Thus, the ALJ's decision dated July 24, 2012, became the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). The parties 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. Issues on Appeal

A. Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC assessment?

B. Whether the ALJ erred in not ordering a consultative examination?

III. Factual Background

Plaintiff was born on February 27, 1963, and was forty-nine years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on June 20, 2012. (Tr. 27, 32). Plaintiff testified that she completed the tenth grade in high school. (Id. at 33). Plaintiff also testified that she last worked as a short order cook, a job she held for approximately eleven years.[2] (Id. at 34). Plaintiff also worked as a cashier from 1997 to 1999 and as a stocker from 1993 to 1996. (Id. at 34-35, 161). According to Plaintiff, she drives, shops, goes to church, cooks, handles her own personal care needs, including bathing, performs household chores such as laundry, washing dishes, making beds and cleaning the bathroom, and handles her own finances. (Id. at 34, 39-41). Plaintiff's interests include watching television and working puzzle books. (Id. at 41).

Plaintiff testified that she stopped working in March 2011 and is unable to work because of pain in her arms and legs, uncontrolled diabetes, and depression. (Id. 34, 36-39). Plaintiff also testified that her medications include Neurontin (for arm and leg pain), [3] Metformin and Glipizide (for diabetes), Digoxin (for her heart), Prozac (for depression), and Aleve (for pain). (Id. at 36-37). Plaintiff did not report any side effects from her medications.

IV. Analysis

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.[4] 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).

B. Discussion

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.[5] 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 March 18, 2011, the alleged onset date, and that she has the severe impairments of diabetes mellitus, depression, supraventricular tachycardia, and bilateral hearing loss. (Tr. 16). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments contained in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 18).

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (hereinafter "RFC") to perform light work, except that "she should avoid work at unprotected heights and with dangerous machinery, avoid ordinary hazards in the workplace due to hearing loss and she should not work in positions requiring fine hearing such as using a telephone. Mentally, she is able to perform simple tasks with short simple instructions, deal with infrequent changes to the workplace, and attend to tasks for 2-hour periods." (Id. at 19). The ALJ also determined that while Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptoms, her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of the alleged symptoms were not credible to the extent that they were inconsistent with the RFC. (Id. at 20).

Given Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past work as a cashier. (Id. at 21). Alternatively, utilizing the testimony of a VE, the ALJ concluded that considering Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for a range of light work, as well as her age, education and work experience, there are also other jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff is able to perform, such as "laundry folder, " "office helper, " and "cafeteria attendant, " ...


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