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Cook v. Berryhill

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

June 16, 2017

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



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Kelvin Laray Cook seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Mr. Cook's claims for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. After careful review, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.[1]


         Mr. Cook applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on December 10, 2012. (Doc. 7-6, pp. 2, 9). Mr. Cook alleges that his disability began December 1, 2012. (Doc. 7-6, pp. 2, 9). The Commissioner initially denied Mr. Cook's claims on June 6, 2013. (Doc. 7-5, p. 2). Mr. Cook requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 7-5, pp. 9-10). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 9, 2014. (Doc. 7-3, p. 13). On May 5, 2016, the Appeals Council declined Mr. Cook's request for review (Doc. 7-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).


         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To determine whether a claimant has proven that he is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Mr. Cook has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 7-3, p. 18). The ALJ determined that Mr. Cook suffers from the following severe impairments: congestive heart failure, non-ischemic cardiomyopathy, and obesity. (Doc. 7-3, p. 18). The ALJ determined Mr. Cook has non-severe medically determinable physical impairments such as sleep apnea and hypertension. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 18-19). Based on objective medical evidence, the ALJ also found that Mr. Cook has no residual limitations from a previous stroke. (Doc. 7-3, p. 19). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Cook does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 7-3, p. 19).

         In light of Mr. Cook's impairments, the ALJ evaluated Mr. Cook's residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Mr. Cook has the RFC to perform

. . . sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant is able to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl[, ] and climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; is able to work in an environment that does not require concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation; is able to perform tasks that do not involve work with hazardous machinery or unprotected heights; must be allowed to alternate between standing and sitting every 1-2 hours as needed; or must be allowed to stand and stretch for 1-2 minutes at the work station as needed every 1-2 hours while remaining on task; must be allowed to elevate his bilateral lower extremities on a foot stool when seated; is able to perform tasks that do not require stringent production or fast pace; will be off task 10% of the day and miss 1-2 days of work per month.

(Doc. 7-3, p. 20). Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Cook is not able to perform his past relevant work as a technician, mechanic, or an auto mechanic supervisor. (Doc. 7-3, p. 23). Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national economy that Mr. Cook can perform, including document preparer, sealer, and order clerk. (Doc. 7-3, p. 24). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Cook has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 7-3, p. 25).


         Mr. Cook argues that he is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because the ALJ erred in finding that Mr. Cook does not meet Listing 4.02 and because the ALJ did not properly weigh the opinion of Mr. Cook's treating cardiologist, Dr. Harish Doppalapudi. The Court examines each issue in turn.

         A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Mr. Cook does not meet Listing 4.02.

         Mr. Cook argues the ALJ erred at Step Three by failing to find that Mr. Cook meets Listing 4.02 for chronic heart failure. (Doc. 9, p. 7; Doc. 11, p. 7).[2] The Listings describe impairments that are “severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his [] age, education, or work experience.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). A claimant satisfies his burden of establishing a disability by showing that his impairment meets one of the listings. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

[T]o meet a Listing, the claimant must (1) have a diagnosed condition included in the Listing, and (2) provide objective medical reports documenting that this condition meets the specific criteria of the applicable Listing and the duration requirement. A diagnosis alone is insufficient.

Wilkinson o/b/o/ Wilkinson v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 660, 663 (11th Cir. 1987) (emphasis omitted). In addition, a claimant's impairment must meet all of the specified medical criteria for the claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing. An impairment that meets some but not all of the criteria ...

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