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Hutchins v. Berryhill

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

June 13, 2017

JENNIFER HUTCHINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Jennifer Hutchins brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)[1] denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1).[2] 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. 12). 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 Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On June 18, 2012, Hutchins protectively filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and for SSI, alleging disability commencing June 11, 2012. (R. 187-200, 262).[3] She amended her alleged onset date to October 16, 2012. (R. 16, 70, 72). Following the initial denial of her applications, Hutchins requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 99-100). The hearing was held on December 3, 2013. (R. 12-43). The ALJ issued a decision on July 10, 2014, finding that Hutchins was not disabled. (R. 68-80).

         Hutchins requested Appeals Council review on August 13, 2014. (R. 10, 353-57). The Appeals Council initially remanded the case because it found that the ALJ had not proffered the consultant examination report of Dr. Walid Freji to Hutchins. (R. 85-87). The Appeals Council later determined that the ALJ had in fact proffered the report to Hutchins. (R. 14). It vacated the remand order on February 25, 2016, and denied review on April 27, 2016. (R. 1-5, 7-10). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Hutchins then filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) & 1383(c)(3). (Doc. 1).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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.

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

         III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         To qualify for disability benefits and SSI 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. § 1382c(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. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). 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 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)[4] (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)). “An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.'” McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.; Evans, 551 F. App'x at 524.

         IV. FACTS

         Hutchins initially alleged disability based on type II diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, a painful right knee, insomnia with fatigue, high blood pressure, blurred vision at times in her right eye, and irregular menstrual cycle with anemia. (R. 266). She was 37 years old on her amended onset date of October 16, 2012. (R. 16, 116, 261). She has a high school education and past relevant work as a cashier-checker and cashier II. (R. 267, 324). Since her onset date, Hutchins has received some unemployment compensation. She has also applied for various jobs online. (R. 16-17, 221-22).

         At her hearing before the ALJ, Hutchins testified that she was unable to work because of difficulty standing for more than thirty minutes due to problems with her feet; a three-year history of difficulty gripping objects; and a one-year history of dizziness and shortness of breath when bending and stooping. (R. 18-21). The ALJ determined that Hutchins could perform her past work as a cashier and, alternatively, could perform work as a counter clerk, furniture rental clerk, and dealer accounts investigator. (R. 79).

         V. DISCUSSION

         Hutchins asserts two claims of error: (1) the ALJ acted improperly in “rejecting the opinion[s]” of treating physician Dr. Gary Walton and consultative examiner Dr. Walid W. Freji and (2) the Appeals Council erred in failing to consider evidence submitted to the ALJ and before it. (Doc. 9 at 2).

         A. Consideration of Opinion Evidence

         1. Generally

         When determining the weight to be given an acceptable medical source such as a physician, an ALJ is to consider numerous factors, including whether the physician examined the individual, whether the physician treated the individual, the evidence the physician presents to support his or her opinion, whether the physician's opinion is consistent with the record as a whole, and the physician's specialty. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). A treating physician's opinion generally is entitled to more weight, and an ALJ must give good reasons for discounting a treating physician's opinion. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). This is particularly true when the treatment “has been over a considerable period of time.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). “However, the nature of the relationship between the doctor and the claimant is only one factor used to determine the weight given to a medical opinion.” Chambers v. Astrue, No. 1:11-cv-02412-TWT-RGV, 2013 WL 486307, at *27 (N.D.Ga. Jan. 11, 2013) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527). An ALJ may discount a physician's opinion, including a treating physician's opinion, when the opinion is conclusory, the physician fails to provide objective medical evidence to support his or her opinion, the opinion is inconsistent with the record as a whole, or the evidence otherwise supports a contrary finding. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(3), (c)(4), 416.927(c)(3), (c)(4); Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1159-60 (11th Cir. 2004); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004).

         2. Dr. Gary Walton

         Hutchins argues that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Walton's opinion when she found that Dr. Walton had not treated Hutchins between her June 25, 2013 office visit and the date he completed her Medical Source Statement (MSS) forms on November 4, 2013. (Doc. 9 at 2-5). The Commissioner responds that the ALJ properly considered the ...


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