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Cavin v. Social Security Administration

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

March 30, 2017

DAVID CAVIN, Plaintiff,



          I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, David Cavin, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Cavin timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the exercise of dispositive jurisdiction by a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 10).

         The plaintiff was 39 years old on the date of the onset of his alleged disability, and 41 years old on the date of the ALJ's opinion, having been born in December 1972. (Tr. at 43). His past work experience includes employment as a welding machine operator, loader/unloader, appliance assembler on a line, and a construction worker/laborer. (Tr. at 20). The plaintiff claims that he became disabled on January 3, 2012, due to diabetic peripheral neuropathy in both hands, carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, diabetes, diabetes-related restless leg syndrome, diabetic seizures with liver damage, shoulder pain, difficulty using his hands, and anxiety disorder. (Tr. at 10, 198).

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends on the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, he will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he or she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform; once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his or her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that the plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017. (Tr. at 12). She further determined that the plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity until September 5, 2012. (Id.) However, the ALJ determined that there was a continuous 12-month period, from September 5, 2012 to the date of the decision, during which the plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. (Id.) According to the ALJ, the plaintiff has the following impairments that are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status post right and left carpal tunnel release, diabetes mellitus, diabetic neuropathy, lumbar degenerative disc disease, and restless leg syndrome. (Id.) She also determined that the plaintiff's obesity, right shoulder pain and difficulty raising his right arm, anxiety disorder, and depression are non-severe. (Tr. at 13). The ALJ found that, according to the medical records, the plaintiff's alleged diabetic seizures and liver damage affecting his brain could not be medically determined based on the absence of objective documentation regarding any such issues.[1] (Id.) The ALJ found that the plaintiff's severe and non-severe impairments, separately and in combination, neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 14). The ALJ did not find the plaintiff's allegations regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of his symptoms to be entirely credible, and she determined that the plaintiff “has the residual functional capacity to perform work at a light level of exertion as that term is defined in the Regulations. He can occasionally push/pull with the bilateral upper extremities and occasionally handle or finger bilaterally. He should not engage in repetitive motion with the bilateral upper extremities, and he should not have exposure to hazards.” (Tr. at 15-16).

         According to the ALJ, the plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work as a welding-machine operator and construction laborer, he is a “younger individual, ” and he has “at least a high school education, ” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 20). She determined that “[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is ‘not disabled, ' whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills.” (Id.) Even though the plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light work, the ALJ determined that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that he is capable of performing, such as bakery worker on a line or control area checker. (Tr. at 21). The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 3, 2012, through the date of this decision.” (Id.)

         II. Standard of Review

         This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Federal Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for “despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         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(e), 416.927(d). Whether the plaintiff 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 there is substantial evidence in the record supporting it.

         III. Discussion

         The plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination that he has the RFC to perform jobs requiring “any use of his hands” is not supported by substantial evidence because, “the claimant cannot even occasionally handle or finger bilaterally.” (Doc. 13, p. 14). To support his argument, the plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in giving great weight to the opinion of the plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Kirschberg, rather than the opinion of consulting physician Dr. Born, whose evaluation was done almost a year later and who concluded that the plaintiff could no longer “work at manual labor anymore involving his hands.” (Tr. at 18). The plaintiff contends that, had Dr. Born's opinion been given great weight, the ALJ would have found that the plaintiff met the requirements of Listing 11.14, [2] could not use his hands at all to work and, therefore, could not do the job of bakery worker or control area checker-the jobs identified by the vocational expert (“VE”) as being within the plaintiff's RFC.

         A. The Evaluations of Dr. ...

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