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Wilson v. Berryhill

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

February 28, 2017





         On May 14, 2012, the claimant, Kathie Wilson, protectively applied for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II and part A of Title XVIII of the Social Security Act. (R. 126). The claimant initially alleged disability commencing on February 1, 2010. (R. 126). The Commissioner denied the claim on July 23, 2012. (R. 60). The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on October 23, 2013. (R. 5, 27).

         In a decision dated January 21, 2014, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and was, therefore, ineligible for social security benefits. (R. 8-26). On June 4, 2015 the Appeals Council denied the claimant's requests for review. (R. 1-4). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. 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.


         The issue before the court is whether, under the Eleventh Circuit's pain standard, the ALJ properly assessed the claimant's subjective complaints of disabling pain.


         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual conclusions. 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, 402 (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 only look 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).


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d) (1) (A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable 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). 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)[1]; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was fifty-four years old at the time of the ALJ's final decision. (R. 30). The claimant has a tenth grade education and past relevant work as a retail salesperson, manager, administrative assistant, receptionist, and bookkeeper. (R. 32, 196). The claimant alleges disability based on depression, high blood pressure, COPD, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Osteoarthritis, and Osteoporosis. (R. 164).

         Physical and Mental Impairments

         On April 10, 2009, the claimant visited Dr. Michael I. Hanna at Anniston Medical Clinic, her primary physician, regarding Hyperlipidemia, Hypertension, and Depression. Dr. Hanna reported positive improvement in all three areas. Subsequently, on July 27, 2009, all examinations showed no distinct abnormalities, although the claimant expressed concern about an episode of chest pain. Dr. Hanna referred the claimant to Dr. Stephen Baker, a cardiologist at Cardiovascular Associates of the Southeast, for a definitive cardiac assessment. (R. 293).

         On July 29, 2009, Dr. Baker performed a routine cardiac assessment that identified several CV risk factors that were assessed by cardiac catheterization. After a left heart catheterization with coronary angiography yielded negative results, Dr. Baker prescribed Nexium and recommended GI evaluation and workup for noncardiac causes of chest pain. Similarly, Dr. Joel Mixon, a radiologist, found no abnormalities after evaluating x-ray results. (R. 222-25, 238).

         The claimant returned to Dr. Hanna on August 21, 2009 for treatment of acute sinusitis and bronchitis. Dr. Hanna prescribed Rocephin, Kenalog, and Augmentin, and ordered a chest x-ray. He also notes in his report that he gave her extensive counseling on smoking cessation. On August 26, 2009, the chest ex-ray showed hyperinflation, so Dr. Hanna began the claimant on an aggressive antibiotic. (R. 293-94).

         On September 3, 2009, Dr. Mohammed K. Shubair, a pulmonologist at Anniston Medical Clinic, evaluated and diagnosed the claimant with COPD. Dr. Shubair explained to the claimant that COPD, caused by smoking, induced the claimant's shortness of breath. He counseled her about smoking cessation again, and prescribed Symbicort and steroid therapy. Dr. Shubair also ordered an echocardiogram, ASR, CRP, and Alpha 1 Antitrypsin test. Two weeks later, Dr. Shubiar evaluated the echocardiogram results, finding a borderline mitral valve and a mild obstructive defect caused by mild COPD, secondary to smoking. Dr. Shubiar again encouraged the claimant to quit smoking, discharged her as a patient, and recommended that she returned to Dr. Hanna for regular follow ups. (R. 291, 294).

         Subsequently, on December 4, 2009 Dr. Hanna evaluated the progression of the claimant's COPD. The claimant reported improvement ...

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