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Terrell v. Colvin

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

January 26, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


SONJA F. BIVINS, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Annie Terrell (hereinafter "Plaintiff") brings this action seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. On November 12, 2014, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 20). 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 supplemental security income on July 29, 2010. (Tr. 155). Plaintiff alleged that she had been disabled since July 29, 2010, due to nerve problems (anxiety and panic disorder), arthritis, and high blood pressure. (Id. at 155, 159). Plaintiff's applications were denied and upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Thomas M. Muth II (hereinafter "ALJ") on September 21, 2011. (Id. at 43). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Id. at 44). A medical expert and a vocational expert ("VE") also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 55, 58).

On November 25, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 36). On May 18, 2012, and June 4, 2012, Plaintiff submitted additional medical evidence to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council considered said evidence before denying review on May 25, 2013. (Id. at 1-2, 5, 8, 514). Thus, the ALJ's decision dated November 25, 2011 became the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). The parties waived oral argument (Doc. 19) 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. Issues on Appeal

A. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to fully develop the evidence related to Plaintiff's mental retardation claim?
B. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to properly consider all the Plaintiff's impairments in posing a hypothetical to the Vocational Expert?
C. Whether the Appeals Council erred in failing to adequately examine the additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff?

III. Factual Background

Plaintiff was born on March 23, 1966, and was forty-five years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on September 21, 2011. (Tr. 43, 45). Plaintiff testified that she completed the twelfth grade in high school, and that she was assigned special education classes. Plaintiff did not graduate from high school because she could not pass the Alabama Graduation Exam. She did not obtain her GED. (Id. at 45, 51).

Plaintiff testified that she last worked as a babysitter from 2006 to 2009 and that she also worked for Alabama Catfish in 2000 and 2002 as a packer and on the filet line. (Id. at 45-46). She testified that she can no longer work because she has a "nerve problem and back problems."[1] (Id. at 47).

Plaintiff reported that she lives with her four children, ages 23, 19, 17, and 12. (Id. at 49). She handles her own finances and banking and can count change; she cooks, performs housekeeping duties (cleaning, laundry, and ironing) and grocery shops, with some assistance from her daughter. (Id. at 49, 167-68). In her Function Report, Plaintiff stated that she is able to finish what she starts; she follows written instructions "well;" she follows spoken instructions "well;" and she gets along with authority figures "well." (Id. at 170-71).

Plaintiff testified that her average day begins around 6:30 a.m. when she wakes her son for school and begins her housework. (Id. at 50). She frequently rests and watches television. (Id.). Plaintiff testified that she does not go out of the house often because of her nerves, although she does go to church on a regular basis. She stated that she has crying spells about twice a week. (Id. at 53-54, 169). Plaintiff has never had a driver's license and has never learned to drive because of problems with her nerves. (Id. at 52).

Plaintiff listed her medications as Citalopram (for anxiety), Diclofenac (for arthritis), Hyzan (for high blood pressure and fluid retention), and Propranolol (for high blood pressure). (Tr. 162). She has no side effects from her medications. (Id.).

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.[2] 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.[3] 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 July 29, 2010, the alleged onset date, and that she has the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, obesity, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and right knee and right shoulder pain of uncertain etiology. (Tr. 27). 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.).

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity (hereinafter "RFC") to perform light work, "except [that] she can frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds and occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds[;] [s]he can frequently use her right upper extremity for pushing and/or pulling; she can occasionally use her left upper extremity for pushing and/or pulling; she can use her right lower extremity for occasional pushing and/or pulling; and she can use her left lower extremity for frequent pushing and/or pulling[;] [she] can frequently balance, occasionally stoop, occasionally kneel, occasionally crouch, occasionally crawl, and occasionally climb ramps and stairs[;] [she] cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds[;] [s]he can frequently reach, bilaterally[;] [s]he can frequently handle with the right hand, occasionally handle with the left hand, perform unlimited fingering with the right hand and perform frequent fingering with the left hand[;] [s]he can perform unlimited feeling[;] [s]he is limited to work that requires no more than occasional exposure to extreme heat and occasional exposure to extreme cold, and that avoids all exposure to unprotected heights and dangerous machinery[;] [she] can perform simple, routine tasks involving no more than simple, short instructions and simple work-related decisions with infrequent and gradually introduced work place changes; she can occasionally interact with the public and occasionally interact with supervisors[;] [and] [s]he should be exposed to only a small number of familiar coworkers but she can sustain ...

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