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Peters v. Berryhill

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

March 28, 2017





         On November 4, 2011, the claimant, Cheryl Peters, protectively applied for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II and Title XVIII of the Social Security Act. (R. 143). The claimant alleged disability commencing on September 9, 2011 because of aortic aneurysm, open heart surgery, paralysis in right side, limited mobility in right arm, and high blood pressure. (R. 143, 175). The Commissioner denied the claim on April 13, 2012. (R. 85). The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on June 5, 2013. (R. 54).

         In a decision dated August 9, 2013, 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. 16-36). On October 6, 2015 the Appeals Council denied the claimant's requests for review. (R. 1-6). 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 the ALJ properly gave little weight to the medical opinion of the claimant's treating physician, Dr. John Christopher Nichols.


         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if he applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports his 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-seven years old at the time of the ALJ's final decision. (R. 59). The claimant has a high school education with a basic paramedic license, and past relevant work as a nurse's assistant/patient care assistant, dispatcher for the police department, and event planner. (R. 59, 79). The claimant alleges disability based on aortic aneurysm, open heart surgery, paralysis in right side, limited mobility in right arm, and high blood pressure. (R. 175).

         Physical and Mental Impairments

         Dr. John Christopher Nichols, the claimant's primary physician at Gardendale Physician Associates, P.C., consistently evaluated the claimant's controlled hypertension every three months beginning in January 2006. Dr. Nichols continued a fluctuating Atenolol, Lisinopril, Losartan, Lasix, Klor, Amlodipine, and Micardis blood pressure regimen for chronic hypertension to stabilize her hypertension throughout seven years. (R. 221-354, 480-568).

         During her routine check-up with Dr. Nichols on December 20, 2008, the claimant reported pain in her chest and back after sneezing. An x-ray indicated no fracture; however, Dr. Nichols prescribed Indocin for pain. Similarly, on July 10, 2009, Dr. Nichols ordered another set of x-rays after the claimant continued to experience chest pain. The x-ray yielded no abnormal result. Then, on January 25, 2011, the claimant underwent a bone density study, which also yielded no abnormal results. Despite sporadic pain complaints, the claimant continued her three month hypertension checkups through 2011. (R. 265-67, 273).

         On August 15, 2011, Dr. Nichols ordered a chest and abdominal angiography, which showed a diffuse aneurysmal dilation of the thoracic aorta in the ascending and descending segments; however, the claimant's lungs looked clear. Subsequently, an EKG performed on August ...

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