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Anderson v. Colvin

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

May 19, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         The plaintiff, Christie Leigh-Robinson Anderson, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB"). Ms. Anderson timely pursued and exhausted her 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 full dispositive jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c).

         Ms. Anderson was 45 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision, and she has an associates degree in nursing. (Tr. at 28). Her past work experiences include employment as a registered nurse in both hospitals and clinical offices. (Tr. at 58, 72). Ms. Anderson claims that she became disabled on September 25, 2008, due to cervical arthritis, shortness of breath, and a hiatal hernia. (Tr. at 204). The medical evidence submitted to the ALJ indicates that Ms. Anderson has cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease (“DDD"), left shoulder impingement, fibromyalgia, gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD") related to a hiatal hernia, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. at 47-64).

         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 she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant's 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. To be “severe, ” an impairment must cause a significant limitation on the claimant's ability to perform basic work tasks. The decision depends upon 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, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be made, and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her 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 her 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 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 of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Anderson has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 60). She first determined that Ms. Anderson met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2014. (Tr. at 52). She next found that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 25, 2008, the alleged onset date. Id. According to the ALJ, the plaintiff's degenerative disc disease in the cervical and lumbar spines, fibromyalgia, left shoulder impingement, and chronic pain are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. Id. She further determined that Ms. Anderson had nonsevere impairments of GERD, related to a hiatal hernia, and depression. However, she found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 53). The ALJ determined that Ms. Anderson's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible” (Tr. at 58), and she determined that she has the following residual functional capacity: to perform light work except that she can lift only 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can occasionally reach overhead with her left upper extremity; can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Tr. at 54).

         Moving on to the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Anderson is unable to perform her past relevant work as a nurse. (Tr. at 58). The ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE"), and determined that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, including photocopy operator, mail sorter, and product marker. (Tr. at 59). The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff is not disabled under Section 1520(g) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 60).

         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). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004), quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997). 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. Fed.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).


         Ms. Anderson alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because, as she asserts: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her fibromyalgia under the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals' pain standard in that (a) the facts support a finding of disability due to fibromyalgia, (b) the ALJ's decision regarding the claimant's credibility is not supported by substantial evidence, and (c) the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinions of treating physicians in favor of a non-treating physician; (2) the ALJ improperly applied the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals pain standard;[1] (3) the ALJ failed to find that the plaintiff s cervical and lumbar impairments met or equaled Listing 1.04, Disorders of the Spine; and (4) the Appeals Council failed to properly consider the new evidence submitted, which would have required remand. (Doc. 16).

         A brief discussion of the plaintiffs medical history is necessary in order to put the ALJ's decision into context. Ms. Anderson was involved in a car accident when she was a teenager, after which she began to have a Astiff neck" and headaches. She went on to become a registered nurse, and worked as a nurse from 1997 until 2008. She sought treatment for neck and back pain as early as 2004, and was treated by an orthopedic surgeon, Matthew Berke, with trigger point injections on several occasions. He noted that she had a history of chronic neck and low back pain, and that she had been given epidural blocks in the past. Her doctor recommended cervical traction and physical therapy as well, which she did not pursue at that time.[2]

         In 2006, Ms. Anderson had an MRI that revealed some disc degeneration in the lumbar region of her back. In 2008, more disc bulges were discovered in her cervical spine. She was treated with epidural steroid injections, anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, massages, acupuncture, and, eventually, narcotic pain medication, including oxycontin. She was referred to a pain clinic in 2008, and was seen regularly-often twice a month. Over the course of the next several years, Ms. Anderson consistently reported to multiple doctors a pain in her neck and back that was “constant, ” that worsened with activity, that was aggravated by sitting and standing, and that was made slightly better by medication and heat. Her reported pain level was never lower than 4 (on a scale of 1 to 10), and once as high as 10. Most often, she reported that the pain was about a level 7 after the effects of medication. She consistently reported that her pain was continuous and aching, and sometimes radiated down her leg or shoulder. While she often reported that medication made the pain “better” or relieved the pain “somewhat, ” she also frequently reported that “any activity at all” aggravated the pain. She specifically complained on multiple occasions that riding in a car made her pain much worse. Dr. Shikhtholth, who treated Ms. Anderson regularly at the pain management clinic, reported that her daily activities had been “severely" or ...

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