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Guin v. Berryhill

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

May 23, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Sandra Kay Guin brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1] (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits. (Doc.[2] 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. 14). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         On October 29, 2012, Guin filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning December 21, 2010. (R.[3]51, 157-58). Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (R. 51-52). Guin then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 61-62). The hearing was held on June 17, 2014. (R. 23-40). Guin, her counsel, and a vocational expert attended the hearing. (R. 23). The ALJ issued a decision on July 7, 2014, finding that Guin was not entitled to benefits. (R. 12-18). The Appeals Council denied Guin's request for review on September 11, 2015. (R. 1-4). Guin then filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner 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.

         The 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. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To qualify for disability insurance 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. § 416(i). 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). To be eligible for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must demonstrate disability on or before the last date she was insured. See Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A)).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe 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 [her] past relevant work, in light of [her] residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of [her] 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)).[4] The claimant bears the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211.

         The applicable “regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Id.

         IV. FACTS

         A. The Medical Evidence

         Guin was 60 years old at the time of her hearing before the ALJ. (R. 27). She has an associate's degree in nursing and has past work experience as a Registered Nurse. (R. 27, 29). She alleges that she became disabled on December 21, 2010, due to symptoms related to obstructive hypertrophic cardio myopathy and mitral valve prolapse, as well as arthritis in her neck. (R. 30). For disability purposes, her date last insured was December 31, 2011. (R. 12). The relevant period, therefore, is just over one year long, from December 21, 2010, through December 31, 2011.

         On December 13, 2010, shortly before her alleged onset date, Guin was examined by Dr. William Cox at Huntsville Cardiovascular Clinic. (R. 256-258). Guin complained of intermittent chest discomfort and intermittent palpitations, but denied any shortness of breath. (R. 257). Dr. Cox noted that Guin had “a harsh systolic murmur at the lower left sternal border which sound[ed] more consistent with a VSD [ventricular septal defect].” (R. 258).

         Dr. Cox referred Guin to Dr. James Kirklin at the Kirklin Clinic. (R. 359-60). Dr. Kirklin examined ...

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