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Stewart v. Colvin

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

June 9, 2015

FREDA STEWART, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner Social Security Administration, Defendant

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KARON OWEN BOWDRE, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

On March 16, 2011, the claimant, Freda Stewart, filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (R. 176-180). The following day, she filed a Title XVI application for Social Security Supplemental Income (SSI). (R. 180-185). In both applications, the claimant alleged disability beginning February 1, 2009 because of high blood pressure, leg and back pain, arthritis, and high cholesterol. The claims were denied initially on June 3, 2011. (R. 91, 97). On July 12, 2012, the claimant amended her alleged onset date to July 22, 2010. (R. 260). The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a video hearing on August 3, 2012. (R. 21).

In a decision dated November 1, 2012, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and, therefore, was ineligible for supplemental social security income. (R. 21). On March 14, 2014, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review; consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (R. 1). 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. ISSUES PRESENTED

The claimant presents the following issues for review:

(1) whether the ALJ correctly found that the claimant's osteoarthritis was not a medically determinable impairment;

(2) whether the ALJ correctly found that the claimant's physical impairments were not severe; and

(3) whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with certain nonexertional limitations.[1]

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 the 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, 401 (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 look only 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 cannot "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); 20 C.F.R.§§ 404.1520, 416.920.

Claimant bears the burden of proving she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 432(d)(5)(A). No symptom or combination of symptoms can be the basis for a finding of disability, no matter how genuine the individual's complaints may appear to be, unless medical signs and laboratory findings demonstrate the existence of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment. Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 585 (11th Cir. 1991). A medically determinable physical or mental impairment is an impairment that results in anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques can prove. 20 C.F.R. § 416.908.

Under step two of the sequential process, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments that causes more than a minimal limitation on a claimant's ability to function. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 532 (11th Cir. 1993). When a claimant has alleged several impairments, the ALJ has a duty to consider the impairments in combination and to determine whether the combined impairments render the claimant disabled. Jones v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 941 F.2d 1529, 1533 (11th Cir. 1991). The claimant bears the burden at the second step of the sequential evaluation of proving that she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). The Eleventh Circuit has determined that "an impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997).

Before reaching step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Social Security Ruling 96-8p states:

The RFC assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions in paragraphs (b), (c), and (d) of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945. Only after that may RFC be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.

SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ must first assess the claimant's functional limitations and restrictions and then express his functional limitations in terms of exertional levels. See Castel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 355 F.Appx. 260, 263 (11th Cir.2009); Freeman v. Barnhart, 220 F.Appx. 957, 959-60 (11th Cir.2007); see also Bailey v. Astrue, 5:11-CV-3583-LSC, 2013 WL 531075 (N.D.Ala. Feb. 11, 2013).

The ALJ must consider all of the relevant evidence in assessing the claimant's functional limitations, including

medical history, medical signs and laboratory findings, the effects of treatment, including limitations or restrictions imposed by the mechanics of treatment (e.g., frequency of treatment, duration, disruption to routine, side effects of medication), reports of daily activities, lay evidence, recorded observations, medical source statements, effects of symptoms, including pain, that are reasonably attributed to a medically determinable ...

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