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Reed v. Berryhill

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

March 16, 2017

KAMETHA L. REED Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Social Security Commissioner Defendant.



         In this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) Plaintiff, Kametha L. Reed (“Reed” or “Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of an adverse social security ruling denying claims for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) (Docs. 1, 15). With the consent of the parties, the Court has designated the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and S.D. Ala. GenLR 73. (See Docs. 22, 24). Oral argument was heard on March 10, 2017. After considering the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED and that this action be DISMISSED.


         Plaintiff protectively applied for disability insurance benefits and SSI on September 20, 2012, asserting a disability onset date of February 15, 2013. (TR. at 20, 146-48; Doc. 15). Plaintiff's applications were denied on June 28, 2013. (TR. at 20). Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 10, 2014. (TR. at 33-51). At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to December 1, 2013. (Id. at 35).

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was forty years old, had completed the tenth grade and had previous work experience as a fast food clerk and child monitor. (Doc. 15; Fact Sheet). Plaintiff alleges disability due to Degenerative Disc Disease of the Lumbar Spine and Osteoarthritis of the Upper and Lower Extremities Bilaterally. (Id.). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied benefits in a decision dated January 5, 2015, after determining that Reed did not meet disability listing requirements; the ALJ further found that Plaintiff was capable of performing of light work with some restrictions. (TR. 17-32). Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision, but the request was denied by the Appeals Council. (TR. 1-6).

         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ committed reversible error (1) in violation of 20 CFR 416.927(d) and Social Security Ruling 96-2 by failing to assign controlling weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Russell Hudgens, M.D. and Dr. Gino DiVittorio, M.D., and instead adopting his own medical opinion in violation of Social Security Ruling 96-6p and Marbury v. Sullivan, (2) in relying on the opinions of a non-examining state agency doctor to formulate his assessment of Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity while rejecting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians, Dr. Russell Hudgens, M.D. and Dr. Gino DiVittorio, M.D. in violation of the Eleventh Circuit case law under Coleman v. Barnhart and Social Security Ruling 96-6p, and (3) in violation of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b) in failing to fulfill her duty to develop the record by ordering a consultative orthopedic examination. (Doc. 15 at 1-2). Defendant has responded to-and denies-these claims. (Doc. 18).


         “In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is ‘ “supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” ' ” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997))). However, the Court “ ‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].' ” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983))). “ ‘Even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s factual findings, we must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.' ” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         “Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as automatons. [The court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted). See also Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are neither to conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp the administrative decisions that come before us. Rather, our function is to ensure that the decision was based on a reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was carefully considered in light of all the relevant facts.”). “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must…tak[e] into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).

         Although the “claimant bears the burden of demonstrating the 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.” Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987). See also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“It is well-established that the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record. Nevertheless, the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” (citations omitted)). “This is an onerous task, as the ALJ must scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts. In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider the evidence as a whole.” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citation and quotation omitted).

         Where, as here, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied review of that decision, the Court “review[s] the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision.” Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278. “[W]hen the [Appeals Council] has denied review, [the Court] will look only to the evidence actually presented to the ALJ in determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1323 (11th Cir. 1998).


         Reed takes issue with the fact that the ALJ did not give controlling weight to the opinions of Dr. Russell Hudgens, M.D. and Dr. Gino DiVittorio, M.D., Reed's treating physicians, and, instead gave greater weight to a non-examining state agency physician. (Doc. 15 at 2-7). Plaintiff additionally claims that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record. (Id. at 7-8). Because the first two issues are related, the Court will address whether the ALJ erred in the assignment of weight given to Plaintiff's treating physicians and the state agency physician together.

         A. Weight assigned to ...

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