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Watkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama

March 20, 2017

NATHANIEL WATKINS, CLAIMANT,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, RESPONDENT.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On September 28, 2012, the claimant, Nathaniel Watkins, protectively applied for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (R. 62, 116-17). In his application, the claimant alleged disability beginning on June 25, 2011, because of degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis in his left knee, lumbar degenerative disc disease, obesity, chronic and severe pain, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus. (R. 14-15). The Commissioner denied the claims on December 12, 2012. The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a video hearing on March 10, 2014. (R. 24-45).

         In a decision dated April 11, 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. 12-20). On August 6, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's requests for review. (R. 1-5). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The claimant has exhausted his 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. ISSUE PRESENTED

         Whether substantial evidence supports the little weight that the ALJ gave to the opinion of the claimant's treating physician Dr. William Hall.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if she applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports her 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 a 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).

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         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); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was sixty-three years old at the time of the ALJ's final decision (R. 27); has a college education (R. 174); has past relevant work as a customer service representative (R. 42-43); and alleges disability based on degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis in his left knee, lumbar degenerative disc disease, obesity, chronic and severe pain, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus (R. 14-15).

         Physical Impairments

         In 2008, the claimant sought treatment with Dr. William Hall at Arlington Health Center on February 4 and September 25 for chronic neck and back pain that resulted from a prior car accident.[1] He also returned to Dr. Hall on December 19 complaining of hand cramps, shoulder pain, and ...


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