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Elliott v. Colvin

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

February 9, 2015

CLARA JEAN DOSS ELLIOTT, Claimant,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Respondent.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KARON OWEN BOWDRE, Chief District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

On October 13, 2010, the claimant, Clara Jean Doss Elliott, protectively applied for widow's insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The claimant initially alleged disability commencing on January 15, 2003 because of ankle, knee, wrist, and lower back pain, as well as arthritis. (R. 39-42, 162-68). The claimant later amended her alleged onset date to October 13, 2010. (R. 26). The Commissioner denied the claim on February 23, 2011. (R. 45-49). The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on June 14, 2012. (R. 23-38, 50).

In a decision dated July 24, 2012, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and was, therefore, ineligible for social security benefits. (R. 8-18). On July 15, 2013, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review. (R. 1-4). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (R. 1-3). The claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, this court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner.

II. ISSUE PRESENTED

The claimant presents the following issue for review: whether the ALJ properly assessed the claimant's credibility and subjective complaints of pain.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if her factual conclusions are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

"No... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims. " Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the Commissioner's factual determinations de novo. The court will affirm those factual determinations that are supported by substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence" is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971).

The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors "are not medical opinions, ... but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court "may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as substantial evidence in the record supports it.

The court must "scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s factual findings." Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).

IV. LEGAL STANDARD

Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable 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). To make this determination the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process:

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of "not disabled."

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986)[1]; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

In evaluating pain and other subjective complaints, the Commissioner must consider whether the claimant demonstrated an underlying medical condition, and either (1) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (2) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can reasonably be expected to give rise to the alleged pain. Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). The ALJ may consider the claimant's daily activities in evaluating and discrediting complaints of disabling pain. Harwell v. Heckler, 735 F.2d 1292, 1293 (11th Cir. 1984).

If the ALJ decides to discredit the claimant's testimony as to her pain, she must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for that decision; failure to articulate reasons for discrediting claimant's testimony requires that the court accept the testimony as true. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561-62 (11th Cir. 1995). A reviewing court will not disturb a clearly ...


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