United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
TERESA A. WELLS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
Claimant Teresa A. Wells brings this action pursuant to Title II of Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. Ms. Wells seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The Commissioner affirmed the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who denied Ms. Wells's claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and widow's disability benefits. (Doc. 9, p. 1). After careful review, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, and the Court affirms the Commissioner's ruling.
II. 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).
III. Procedural and Factual Background
On July 28, 2010, Ms. Wells applied for widow's disability benefits, a period of disability, and disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 6-6, pp. 25-26). The Social Security Administration denied Ms. Wells's application for disability benefits on October 29, 2010 and denied her application for disabled widow's benefits on November 1, 2010. (Doc. 6-5, pp. 2, 9). At Ms. Wells's request, on April 12, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge conducted a hearing concerning Ms. Wells's application. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 89-119). Ms. Wells and an impartial vocational expert testified at the hearing. (Id. ). At the time of her hearing, Ms. Wells was 55 years old. Ms. Wells has a high school education and completed some college. (Doc. 9, p. 4; Doc. 6-3, p. 95). Her past relevant work experience is as an inventory clerk, an administrative clerk, a receptionist, a data entry clerk, and an employment manager. (Doc. 9, p. 4; Doc. 6-3, pp. 114-15; Doc. 6-6, pp. 2-3).
On April 20, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. Wells's request for disability benefits, concluding that Ms. Wells did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in, the Regulations. (Doc. 6-3, p. 55). A week later, on April 27, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. Wells's request for disabled widow's benefits, based on the conclusion that Ms. Well did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in, the Regulations. (Doc. 6-3, p. 28). In his two-part decision,  the ALJ described the "five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled" and 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. 6-3, pp. 32, 48).
The ALJ found that Ms. Wells had not "engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 11, 2009, the alleged onset date" in her claim for disability benefits, and that Ms. Wells had not "engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 7, 2007, the alleged onset date" for her disabled widow's benefits. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 33, 49). Ms. Wells met the non-disability requirements for the disabled widow's benefits claim. (Doc. 6-3, p. 33). In addition, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Wells had "the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, cervical spondylosis, [and] rheumatoid arthritis." (Doc. 6-3, pp. 33, 49). The ALJ found the impairments to be severe. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 34, 49). Still, the ALJ opined that "the medical evidence does not establish the existence of [the listed spinal disorders].... Furthermore, there is no evidence that [Ms. Wells's] back disorder has resulted in the inability to ambulate effectively as defined [in the Regulations]." (Doc. 6-3, pp. 34, 50). The ALJ concluded that Ms. Wells's cervical spondylosis did not meet the requirements for listing 1.02, because "evidence does not demonstrate that [Ms. Wells] has sufficient difficulty in performing fine and gross movements." (Doc. 6-3, pp. 34, 50). The ALJ did not find sufficient evidence that suffered "an inability to ambulate or perform fine and gross movements, " and therefore her rheumatoid arthritis did not meet listing 14.09. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 34-35, 50-51).
Based on these factual findings, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Wells had the "residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work;... except that she could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally climb ramps or stairs, and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or engage in activities requiring balance. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme vibration." (Doc. 6-3, pp. 35, 51).
The ALJ considered a report from Dr. W. Curry McEvoy, a physician who conducted a consultative examination on Ms. Wells. Dr. McEvoy's notes state that Ms. Wells, had a normal gait and range of motion, used a cane "intermittently but [it was] not a necessity, " had no apparent coordination problems, 4/5 strength in her lower extremities, and a normal affect and normal mood." (Doc. 6-3, p. 36; see Doc. 6-8, pp. 25-26). Dr. McEvoy advised that Ms. Wells "could stand or walk for fro[m] 6 [to] 8 hours" in an 8-hour day with "frequent breaks." (Doc. 6-8, p. 26). The notes state Ms. Wells had "no limitations in the amount of time that [Ms. Wells] can sit in an 8 hour day." (Id. ). Dr. McEvoy also noted that Ms. Wells could not likely lift more than twenty pounds and that she was limited in her ability to stoop, crouch, or kneel. (Doc. 6-8, p. 26); see also (Doc. 6-3, pp. 36-37). Because Dr. McEvoy's examination of Ms. Wells was "valuable and largely consistent with the objective evidence" the ALJ gave his opinions moderate weight. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 37, 53). The ALJ added that, "given [Ms. Wells]'s testimony at [the] hearing, and giving her some benefit of the doubt, the weight of the evidence indicates that she is more limited than [Dr. McEvoy] determined at his examination." (Doc. 6-3, p. 37).
The ALJ considered the medical records of several doctors who examined Ms. Wells after the alleged onset date of her disability. (Doc. 6-3, p. 36). Dr. Charles H. Clark found that Ms. Wells showed mild scoliosis, but he found that there was "no clear-cut stenosis or nerve root encroachment, " and Ms. Wells appeared "alert, oriented, and in no acute distress." (Doc. 6-3, p. 36; Doc. 6-8, p. 7). The ALJ found that Dr. Jeremy Barlow performed an epidural injection on Ms. Wells due to her complaints about back pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 36; Doc. 6-8, pp. 2-6). The ALJ also noted that Dr. Nop Unnopet recorded in his treatment notes that Ms. Wells was "doing well" on her medication, her rheumatoid arthritis was "stable." (Doc. 6-3, p. 36; Doc. 6-8, p. 41). Ms. Wells told Dr. Unnopet that she had discontinued Yoga and some other activities out of fear that they might aggravate her conditions. (Doc. 6-8, p. 44). But Dr. Unnopet told ...