United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
KAREN D. LUEPNITZ, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
Pursuant to Title II of Section 205(g) and Title XVI of Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, plaintiff Karen D. Luepnitz seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, who affirmed the Administrative Law Judge's denial of Ms. Luepnitz's claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income benefits. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). After careful review, the Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
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 her legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'" Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 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 ALJ's findings. "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).
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. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On March 9, 2011, Ms. Luepnitz applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income pursuant to Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 5-6, pp. 9-17); U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). The Social Security Administration denied Ms. Luepnitz's application on April 29, 2011. (Doc. 5-5, p. 2). On May 15, 2012, at the request of Ms. Luepnitz, an ALJ conducted a hearing concerning her application. (Doc. 5-3, p. 25). Ms. Luepnitz and an impartial vocational expert, Dr. Jewel Euto, testified at the hearing. (Doc. 5-3, p. 26). At the time of the hearing, Ms. Luepnitz was forty-six years old and had completed high school. (Doc. 5-3, p. 34). Ms. Luepnitz had worked in the past as a postal clerk for at least sixteen years. (Doc. 5-3, pp. 36, 66).
On June 4, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. Luepnitz's request for disability benefits, concluding that Ms. Luepnitz's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of her alleged symptoms, but that the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the impairments did not render her disabled. (Doc. 5-3, p. 21). The ALJ found that Ms. Luepnitz's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of [her] symptoms [were] not credible to the extent they [were] inconsistent with the objective medical evidence of record." (Doc. 5-3, p. 16).
In the decision, the ALJ described the "five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled." (Doc. 5-3, p. 11). At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Luepnitz had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2010, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 5-3, p. 12). At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Luepnitz had the following severe impairments: "degenerative joint disease of the left knee status post left total knee replacement (February 2011), degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, lumbar spondylolisthesis, and a history of fibromyalgia." (Doc. 5-3, p. 12).
In addition to her physical impairments, Ms. Luepnitz suffers from depression. The ALJ determined that Ms. Luepnitz's depressive disorder was "non-severe" because her symptoms caused only "minimal limitation in [her] ability to perform basic mental work activities." (Doc. 5-3, p. 12). In evaluating the extent of Ms. Luepnitz's depressive disorder, the ALJ reviewed records from Dr. Alan Blotcky, a psychologist who examined Ms. Luepnitz at her attorney's request. (Doc. 5-3, pp. 12-13). The ALJ found that Dr. Blotcky's conclusions were inconsistent with other evidence in the record, and the ALJ assigned his opinion "little weight." (Doc. 5-3, p. 13). Additionally, the ALJ recognized that Ms. Lueptniz did not seek treatment following Dr. Blotcky's evaluation despite Dr. Blotcky's recommendation that Ms. Luepnitz seek "psychiatric treatment on a regular and uninterrupted basis." (Doc. 5-3, p. 13; Doc. 5-9, p. 31). The ALJ noted that "[Ms. Luepnitz] has not seen a psychiatrist nor any other mental health professional at any time relevant to the decision." (Doc. 5-3, p. 13). Instead, Dr. Mangieri, Ms. Luepnitz's pain management doctor, was prescribing Prozac for Ms. Luepnitz. The ALJ did not consider Dr. Blotcky a "treating source" because the doctor examined Ms. Luepnitz only once. (Doc. 5-3, p. 13).
As part of her analysis of the severity of Ms. Luepnitz's depression, the ALJ considered section 12.00C of the Listing of Impairments, the disability regulations governing mental disorders. 20 C.F.R. § 404(p)(1); (Doc. 5-3, p. 14). Paragraph B of Listing 12.00C identifies four functional areas for evaluating depression: (1) daily living, (2) social functioning, (3) concentration, persistence, or pace, and (4) episodes of decompensation. (Doc. 5-3, p. 14). The ALJ evaluated all four areas. First, she determined that Ms. Luepnitz has no limitation in daily living because on a typical day, Ms. Luepnitz gets her son ready for school, cleans up the kitchen after breakfast, completes household chores, takes her medication, lies down to elevate her feet due to swelling, prepares dinner, walks for fifteen minutes, visits with family, and gets ready for bed. (Doc. 5-3, p. 13). Second, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Luepnitz experienced no limitation of her social functioning because she "spends time with family and friends and goes places with them, " attends monthly doctors' appointments, and lives with her spouse and children. (Doc. 5-3, p. 14). Third, the ALJ determined that Ms. Luepnitz has mild limitation in her concentration, persistence, and pace. (Doc. 5-3, p. 14). The ALJ noted that Ms. Luepnitz is able to read, scrapbook, use the computer, and watch television. ( Id. ). Ms. Luepnitz also "initially denied problems with maintaining her concentration, or the abilities to tolerate stress or [follow] instructions." (Doc. 5-3, p. 14). Fourth, the ALJ found that Ms. Luepnitz did not suffer from episodes of decompensation. (Doc. 5-3, p. 14). Because Ms. Luepnitz had not met the criteria in paragraph B of Listing 12.00C, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Luepnitz's mental impairments are non-severe. (Doc. 5-3, p. 14).
At step three of the evaluation process, the ALJ must consider whether the claimant is able to work despite her impairments. The analysis has two steps. First, the ALJ must determine whether a medically determinable impairment could reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's symptoms. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15). Then, if an underlying impairment has been established, the ALJ must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms to determine the extent of the limitations. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15). If statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally limiting effects of pain are not substantiated by objective medical evidence, then the ALJ must make a credibility determination based on the entire record. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15).
In the first part of step three's bifurcated analysis, the ALJ determined that Ms. Luepnitz does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or are medically equal to the severity of a listed impairment. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15). In the second part of analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Luepnitz has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), and that she can frequently lift and/or carry up to ten pounds with a ten pound maximum lifting capacity. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15).
The ALJ concluded that Ms. Luepnitz can stand and/or walk with normal breaks for at least two hours during an eight-hour workday and sit with normal breaks for up to eight hours during an eight-hour workday. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15). The ALJ stated that Ms. Luepnitz should not perform push or pull movements, operate foot controls, or climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15). The ALJ found that Ms. Luepnitz can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but she should avoid working at unprotected heights or at close proximity to dangerous machinery. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15). The ALJ specified that Ms. Luepnitz should avoid operating motorized vehicles and equipment. (Doc. 5-3, p. 15). In reaching her conclusion, the ALJ considered all of Ms. Luepnitz's symptoms to the extent that they could "reasonably be accepted as consistent with objective medical evidence and other evidence." (Doc. 5-3, p. 15).
After reviewing the evidence, the ALJ determined that Ms. Luepnitz's impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms; however, the ALJ did not find her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects to be credible to the extent that they were inconsistent with the record. (Doc. 5-3, p. 16). The ALJ based her decision in part on the fact that Ms. Luepnitz had been on methadone for pain management for seven years, long before her knee surgery (which improved the condition of her knee), and had worked for the vast majority of those years. (Doc. 5-3, p. 19). Similarly, Ms. Luepnitz's medical records ...