United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MICHAEL PUTNAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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. §
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).
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. '
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.
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).
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).
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).
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; (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).
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.
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