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Hollinger v. Colvin

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

March 31, 2015

AMANDA N. HOLLINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

WILLIAM E. CASSADY, Magistrate Judge.

The Plaintiff brings this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Doc. 17 ("In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, ... order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.").) Upon consideration of the administrative record ("R.") (doc. 12), the Plaintiff's brief (doc. 13), the Commissioner's brief (doc. 14), and the arguments presented at the October 9, 2014 hearing, it is determined that the Commissioner's decision denying benefits should be affirmed.[1]

I. Procedural Background

On or around December 18, 2007, the Plaintiff filed an application for SSI and DIB (R. 271-87, R. 320), alleging disability relating to the following ailments: irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, polcystic ovary syndrome, fatigue, and diverticulitis. (R. 324.) She stated that she became disabled on November 14, 2007. (R. 283.) Her application was initially denied on May 12, 2008. (R. 155-64.) A hearing was then conducted before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on September 15, 2009. (R. 41-77). On September 25, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision finding that the claimant was not disabled. (R. 139-50.) On February 14, 2011, the Appeals Council remanded this matter back to the ALJ for further proceedings. (R. 152-54.) Additional hearings were held before the ALJ on June 7, 2011, (R. 78-116), and January 11, 2012, (R. 117-33). On March 22, 2012, the ALJ issued a second decision finding that the claimant was not disabled. (R. 19-34.) The Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, (R. 14), and the Appeals Council issued a decision declining to review the ALJ's decision, (R. 1-3). Therefore, the ALJ's March 22, 2012 determination was the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. The Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court on November 18, 2013. (Doc. 1.)

II. Standard of Review and Claims on Appeal

In all Social Security cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that he or she is unable to perform his or her previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986). In evaluating whether the plaintiff has met this burden, the examiner must consider the following four factors: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the plaintiff's age, education, and work history. Id. Once the plaintiff meets this burden, it becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove that the plaintiff is capable-given his or her age, education, and work history-of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). Although at the fourth step "the [plaintiff] bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to his [or her] past relevant work, the [Commissioner of Social Security] has an obligation to develop a full and fair record." Schnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).

The task for this Court is to determine whether the ALJ's decision to deny Plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla, and means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). "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). Courts are precluded, however, from "deciding the facts anew or re-weighing the evidence." Davison v. Astrue, 370 F.Appx. 995, 996 (11th Cir. Apr. 1, 2010) (per curiam) (citing Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)). And, "[e]ven if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [a court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence." Id. (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004)).

On appeal to this Court, the Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ reversibly erred by failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of Dr. Ellis Allen, her primary care physician, and the opinion of Ms. Selena Steade and Ms. Yvonne Ambrose, the Plaintiff's nurse practitioner and mental health counselor involved in her mental health treatment.[2] [3] (Doc. 13 at 2.) For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision denying the Plaintiff benefits should be affirmed.

III. ALJ's Decision

On March 22, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 19-34.) In reaching her decision, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity following November 14, 2007, the alleged onset date. (R. 21.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff "has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, neuropathy, history of abdominal surgeries for polycystic ovary syndrome and colostomy, irritable bowel syndrome, hypothyroidism, bipolar disorder, and anxiety." (R. 21-22 (emphasis omitted).) The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff did not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 25.) The ALJ made the following findings with respect to the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she is limited to standing and walking for no more than 30 minutes at a time and no more than 3 hours total during an 8 hour workday. She is limited to occasional overhead reaching, bending, crouching, crawling, stooping, and kneeling. She is unable to work around unprotected heights or dangerous equipment. She may need to take 1-2 quick ( i.e. less than 5 minutes) bathroom breaks throughout the workday in addition to normal breaks. She should avoid work requiring complex or detailed instructions. She is unable to work in crowds and is limited to occasional public contact.

(R. 27 (emphasis omitted).) Based on the testimony of the vocational experts, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not capable of performing past relevant work, but that the Plaintiff can perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers. (R. 32.)

IV. Analysis

A. The ALJ did not err by failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of Dr. Allen, the ...


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