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Sullivan v. Colvin

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

March 31, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


SONJA F. BIVINS, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Vanessa L. Sullivan (hereinafter "Plaintiff") brings this action seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for a supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. On October 22, 2014, the parties waived oral argument and consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Docs. 17, 18). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on June 16, 2010.[1] (Tr. 167). Plaintiff alleged that she has been disabled since May 20, 2001, due to "seizures and arthritis." (Id. at 167, 172). Plaintiff's application was denied, and upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Thomas M. Muth II (hereinafter "ALJ") on November 17, 2011. (Id. at 51). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and her daughter, and Plaintiff and her daughter provided testimony related to her claims. (Id. at 51, 55, 68). A vocational expert ("VE") also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 72). On February 10, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 46). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 15, 2013. (Id. at 1). Thus, the ALJ's decision dated February 10, 2012 became the final decision of the Commissioner.

Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). The parties agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

II. Issues on Appeal

A. Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the opinions of consultative examiners, Dr. Keith Varden, M.D., and Dr. Kenneth Starkey, Psy.D.?
B. Whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the testimony of Plaintiff's daughter regarding the frequency of Plaintiff's seizures?

III. Factual Background

Plaintiff was born on December 31, 1958, and was fifty-two years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on November 17, 2011. (Tr. 51, 167). Plaintiff testified that she completed the twelfth grade in high school. (Id. at 55). The record also shows that Plaintiff attended Bishop State Community College from 1991 to 1992 and from 1994 to 1995 and earned her Early Childhood Education Certificate.[2] (Tr. 223).

Plaintiff's Work History Report shows that she last worked in the day care industry from 1995 to 2002 as a teacher. (Id. at 55, 179). Plaintiff also served as a "Program Director" for a daycare from 1995 to 1997. (Id. at 179). Plaintiff testified that she stopped working in 2002 because she began having seizures on the job. (Id. at 56). She stated that she has consistently had seizures at a rate of three or four a month since 2002, which makes her unable to work. (Id. at 56-57).

Plaintiff testified that she lives in a house with her seventy-six year old mother and that her daughter and her sister come over and do the housework, cooking, and grocery shopping. (Id. at 59). Plaintiff stated that she has a driver's license, but she does not drive. (Id. at 59-60). According to Plaintiff, she gets up in the morning, gets dressed, watches television, reads, goes outside for a few minutes to get fresh air, and visits with friends who come over. (Id. at 60). She attends church two Sundays out of the month. (Id. at 65).

Plaintiff reported that she can only stand for ten to fifteen minutes, but she can walk for twenty minutes. (Id. at 57-58). She also reported that she can sit for about ten minutes, and is able to lift five pounds. (Id. at 58, 67).

Plaintiff testified that she had surgery on her right shoulder in 2008 and still has pain which she rated as an eight on a ten-point pain scale. (Id. at 60-61). She also began having arthritis pain in her left hand in October 2011, for which she received a cortisone injection, which greatly improved her condition. (Id. at 61-62).

Plaintiff's medications include Norvasc and Hydrochlorothiazide (for high blood pressure), Trileptal (for seizures), Celebrex (for arthritis), Nexium (for acid reflux), Darvocet (for pain) and Zoloft (for depression). (Id. at 57, 63-64, 175). Plaintiff reported that the side effects from her medications include dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, headaches, confusion, double vision, and hostility. (Id. at 67, 197).

IV. Analysis

A. Standard of Review

In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied.[3] Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance" and consists of "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion."). 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); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).

B. Discussion

An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as the "inability 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations ...

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