United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
E. OTT Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
Catherine Westphal brings this action pursuant to Section
205(g) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)),
seeking review of the final decision of the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her application for
disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 1). The case has been
assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge
pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The
parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for
disposition of the matter. (Doc. 9). See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). Upon review of the record
and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) properly
developed the record and was correct in his decision that
Plaintiff did not have a medically determinable impairment to
qualify for disability insurance benefits. Upon
consideration, the court finds that the Commissioner is due
to be affirmed.
March 19, 2012, Westphal protectively filed an application
for disability insurance benefits and supplement security
income benefits, alleging disability beginning on March 10,
2012. (R. 135-42, 167). Westphal was initially denied benefits
on June 1, 2012 (R. 69-73), and requested a hearing before an
ALJ on July 20, 2012. (R. 84-86). A hearing was held on
January 15, 2014. (R. 25-45). The ALJ denied Westphal's
claim on April 11, 2014. (R. 10-24). The Appeals Council
denied review. (R. 1-3). Westphal then filed this action
under § 405(g). (Doc. 1).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
court's review of the Commissioner's decision is
narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to
determine whether the Commissioner's decision is
supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal
standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v.
Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The
court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to
determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported
by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v.
Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).
Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a
scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.
court must uphold factual findings that are supported by
substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal
conclusions de novo because no presumption of
validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the
proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v.
Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the
court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law,
or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient
reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has
been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision.
See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46
(11th Cir. 1991).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security
Act, a claimant must show the inability 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); 42 U.S.C.
§ 1382(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is
“an impairment that results from anatomical,
physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are
demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3); 42
U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(D).
of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five
step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4).
Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:
whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial
gainful activity; (2) has a sever medically determinable
physical or mental impairment; (3) has such an impairment
that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration
requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in
light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make
an adjustment to other work, in light of his residual
functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.
Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 F. App'x
521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)). Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that
she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th
Cir. 2005). The applicable “regulations place a very
heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying
disability and an inability to perform past relevant
FINDINGS OF THE ALJ
was 24 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. (R.
20, 167). Plaintiff has a high school education and past work
as a front desk clerk and cashier. (R. 41-42, 172). Plaintiff
alleges that she was disabled due to a broken left foot,
broken left ankle, right femur operation, several broken
ribs, and infection in the mouth. (R. 171). At her hearing,
Plaintiff requested that she be treated as a “closed
period” claimant for the period from February 10, 2012
to December 2013. (R. 13).
associates many of her alleged problems to a motor vehicle
accident on March 10, 2012, but the evidence indicates that
she recovered from her accident within a short period of time
and did not experience any long-lasting functional
limitations. Because of the accident, Plaintiff experienced
fractures in her right leg and left foot. (R. 226-28, 243-49,
252-53). There was no evidence of trauma in the chest,
abdomen, neck, or pelvis. (R. 250-51). Plaintiff had surgery
to repair a fracture in her right leg, and was discharged
from the hospital on March 15, 2012. (R. 226-27). At the
beginning of April, Plaintiff underwent surgery to repair the
fractures in her left foot. (R. 233-34, 261-62). Two-weeks
later, Dr. Ashish Shah stated that Plaintiff was doing well
post-operatively and that he would place Plaintiff in a
non-weight bearing cast for four weeks. (R. 236).
2012, Dr. Zakir Khan performed a consultative examination,
and found Plaintiff had the ability to sit, lift, carry,
handle objects, hear, speak, and travel but that standing and
walking would be difficult until treatment of her left foot
injury was completed. (R. 276). In June 2012, Dr. Robert
Estock, a state agency consultant, found that Plaintiff had
no severe mental limitations or restrictions in mental
functioning. (R. 51). In September 2012, Dr. Shah performed
surgery to remove the hardware in Plaintiff's left foot.
(R. 291-93, 311-12).
received periodic treatment from Dr. James Tuck in 2012 and
2013. (R. 546-60). Plaintiff sought medication refills for
attention deficit disorder (“ADD”), but did not
report any ongoing psychological symptoms. (R. 540-60).
Plaintiff continued to take college courses during this time.
2013, Dr. Tuck examined Plaintiff and found she had a normal
neurological function, normal sensation and coordination in
all extremities, and normal range of motion without pain in
both lower extremities. (R. 550). Dr. Tuck noted Plaintiff
was alert and oriented, could recall recent and remote
events, had an appropriate mood and affect, and had an intact
fund of knowledge. (Id.) In September 2013, Dr. Tuck
found Plaintiff maintained normal neurological,
musculoskeletal, and psychological examinations. (R. 546-47).
evaluating Plaintiff's application, the ALJ applied the
five-step sequential evaluation process for determining
whether a claimant is disabled. (R. 15-20). The ALJ first
found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 15). After
reviewing the medical evidence and testimony presented at the
administrative hearing, the ALJ determined that
“although the records reveal [Plaintiff] suffered
severe impairments in a motor vehicle accident in March 2012,
the records do not satisfy the requirement that an impairment
must last twelve months, particularly in light of her lack of
treatment from September 2012 until July 2013.” (R.
19). Although Plaintiff had seen Dr. Tuck several times
between September 2012 and July 2013, the ...