United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Susan Beams Hunnicutt filed this action on September 17, 2013, pursuant to Title XVI of Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act. Ms. Hunnicutt seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The Commissioner affirmed the Administrative Law Judge's denial of Ms. Hunnicutt's claims for a period of disability and supplemental security income. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). After careful review, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of review in this matter is limited. "When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, " the Court "review[s] the ALJ's factual findings with deference' and [his] legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'" Riggs v. Soc. Sec. Admin. Comm'r, 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).
The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the findings of the Commissioner. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not "reweigh the evidence or decide the facts anew, " and the Court must "defer to the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may preponderate against it." Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.2d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)).
With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Ms. Hunnicutt alleges that her disability began on February 27, 2010. (Doc. 8-6, p. 2). She applied for social security income benefits under Title XVI on Mach 1, 2010. (Doc. 8-4, p. 2). The Social Security Administration denied Ms. Hunnicutt's application on August 9, 2010. (Doc. 8-5, pp. 5-9). At Ms. Hunnicutt's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a video hearing on February 23, 2012. (Doc. 8-5, pp. 12-14; Doc. 8-3, pp. 36-63). At the time of the hearing, Ms. Hunnicutt was 48 years old. (Doc. 12, p. 2). Ms. Hunnicutt has a GED. (Doc. 8-3, p. 43). Her past relevant work experience is as a cashier and a cook. (Doc. 8-3, p. 44; Doc. 8-7, pp. 29-36).
On April 26, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. Hunnicutt's request for disability benefits, concluding that Ms. Hunnicutt is not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 8-3, pp. 18-32). In his 12-page decision, the ALJ described the Social Security Administration's "five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled." (Doc. 8-3, pp. 20-23). The ALJ explained that "[i]f it is determined that the claimant is or is not disabled at a step of the evaluation process, the evaluation will not go on to the next step." (Doc. 8-3, p. 20).
The ALJ found that Ms. Hunnicutt "has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 1, 2010, the application date." (Doc. 8-3, p. 23). In addition, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hunnicutt has "the following severe impairments: left carotid occlusion, migraines, status post cardiovascular accident, hypertension, and obesity." (Doc. 8-3, p. 23). The ALJ did not find Ms. Hunnicutt's mental impairments of adjustment disorder with mildly depressed mood and anxiety to be severe impairments. (Doc. 8-3, p. 23). Using the four broad functional areas set out in the disability regulations, the ALJ found that Ms. Hunnicutt: (1) has mild limitation in activities of daily living; (2) has no limitation in social functioning; (3) has mild limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) has experienced no episodes of decompensation which have been of extended duration. (Doc. 8-3, pp. 23-24). The ALJ concluded that Ms. Hunnicutt's severe impairments, when considered individually and in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (Doc. 8-3, p. 24).
Next, the ALJ calculated Ms. Hunnicutt's residual functional capacity (RFC). The ALJ determined that Ms. Hunnicutt has the RFC "to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) except that she is limited to occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching and crawling." (Doc. 8-3, p. 24). The ALJ also stated that Ms. Hunnicutt "must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold or noise" and "is precluded from exposure to unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, and open water." (Doc. 8-3, p. 24).
In making his findings, the ALJ examined the record, which revealed that on February 26, 2010, Ms. Hunnicutt went to Northport Medical Center with complaints of a headache, left facial drooping, and difficulty talking. (Doc. 8-8, p. 120). She rated her pain at a 10 out of 10, noted that her pain had been present for a week, and stated that she had treated her pain with 9 Goody's powders. (Doc. 8-8, p. 120). Upon examination, Ms. Hunnicutt was diagnosed with sinusitis, dysarthia, and confusion. (Doc. 8-8, p. 125).
Ms. Hunnicutt returned to the Northport Medical Center on February 27, 2010, with worsening symptoms. (Doc. 8-8, p. 4). Ms. Hunnicutt was diagnosed with an acute stroke and treated with Coumadin. (Doc. 8-8, p. 4). Northport Medical Center discharged Ms. Hunnicutt on March 4, 2010. At that time, Dr. Charles Abney reported that Ms. Hunnicutt's face was symmetric and her speech was not slurred. (Doc. 8-8, p. 5). Dr. Abney informed Ms. Hunnicutt that she could resume her usual activities as tolerated. (Doc. 8-8, p. 5). The ALJ gave great weight to the findings of Dr. Abney because he was a treating physician and because his conclusions were consistent with the weight of the medical evidence. (Doc. 8-3, p. 29).
The ALJ considered the treatment notes of Dr. Jim Allen, who saw Ms. Hunnicutt twice in March 2010. (Doc. 8-3, p. 26). On March 12, 2010, Dr. Allen found it difficult to see any post-stroke drooping. (Doc. 8-8, p. 47-48). On March 19, 2010, Dr. Allen noted that Ms. Hunnicutt complained of comprehension problems with written material, but she was able to read her prescription labels and her physical examination was normal. (Doc. 8-8, pp. 44-45). The ALJ gave great weight to the findings of Dr. Allen because he was a treating physician and because his findings were consistent with the weight of the medical evidence. (Doc. 8-3, p. 29).
The ALJ also considered the notes of Dr. Long, who began treating Ms. Hunnicutt in April 2010. (Doc. 8-3, p. 26). On April 27, 2010, Dr. Long noted that Ms. Hunnicutt was pale and agitated, but she had no neurological or motor defects. (Doc. 8-8, p. 36). Dr. Long opined that Ms. Hunnicutt had made a remarkable recovery. (Doc. 8-8, p. 36). On May 25, 2010, Dr. Long noted Ms. Hunnicutt's complaints of headaches and muscle pain. (Doc. 8-8, p. 35). On June 22, 2010, Ms. Hunnicutt complained of headaches, forgetfulness, and intermittent anger, but Dr. Long noted no neurological or motor deficits. (Doc. 8-8, p. 34).
The ALJ then examined the treatment notes of Dr. Larry O. Skelton, who saw Ms. Hunnicutt on June 28, 2010. (Doc. 8-3, pp. 27-28). His examination did not reveal any physical abnormalities, and he determined that she had a full range of motion. (Doc. 8-8, p. 51). Dr. Skelton noted that Ms. Hunnicutt seemed anxious and depressed, but her mood and affect were appropriate and her decision-making was normal. (Doc. 8-8, pp. 50, 52). He reported that Ms. Hunnicutt had essentially no residual effects from her cardiovascular accident (CVA). (Doc. 8-8, p. 52). The ALJ gave great ...