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Wagner v. Colvin

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

July 20, 2017

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




         The plaintiff, Regina Burns Wagner, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (ACommissioner@) denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (ADIB@). Ms. Wagner 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) and 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. Wagner was 54 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision, and she has a master's degree in education. (Tr. at 398). Her past work experiences include teaching elementary school and being a reading coach for other teachers. (Tr. at 63, 398). Ms. Wagner claims that she became disabled on November 15, 2012, due to depression, anxiety, and migraine headaches. (Tr. at 187). The medical evidence submitted to the ALJ indicates that Ms. Wagner has migraines, obesity, degenerative disc disease, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. at 17, and exhibits attached).

         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. 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 in the analysis 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 his or 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, but 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. Wagner 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 32). She first determined that Ms. Wagner meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. (Tr. at 17). She next found that the plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 15, 2012, the alleged onset date. Id. According to the ALJ, the plaintiff's migraines; obesity; broad-based disc protrusion at ¶ 4-L5; thoracic radiculitis with disc protrusion at ¶ 11-T12; restless leg syndrome; and recurring major depressive disorder, moderate, with anxious features, are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. Id. She further determined that Ms. Wagner had nonsevere impairments of a fracture of a foot bone; anemia; bilateral arm impairments; vitamin D and B deficiencies; vertigo; and bowel incontinence. 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 19). The ALJ determined that Ms. Wagner's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Tr. at 24).

         The ALJ determined that the claimant has the following residual functional capacity: to perform medium work except that she can work in an environment with only a “moderate noise intensity level” or quieter; she is able to work in settings with illumination similar to that found in a typical office but is unable to work in sustained direct sunlight; she can work in an environment that does not involve concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation or vibration; cannot work at unprotected heights or with hazardous machinery; must have access to a nearby restroom and must have the option to take restroom breaks at her own discretion; is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple, repetitive, and routine tasks and is able to maintain attention and concentration for two hours at a time; is able to work in an environment that does not have stringent production or speed requirements; and is off task 10 percent of the day. (Tr. at 22-23).

         Moving on to the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Wagner is unable to perform her past relevant work as a teacher. (Tr. at 31). 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 plaintiff can perform. (Tr. at 31). The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that the plaintiff is not disabled under Section 1520(g) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 32).

         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. Wagner alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for two reasons: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her complaints of migraines and depression under the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals' pain standard, and (2) the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinion of Ms. Wagner's treating physician, Dr. Stacy Siegel, with regard to her depression and anxiety. (Doc. 13).

         A brief discussion of the plaintiff's medical history is necessary in order to put the ALJ's decision into context. Ms. Wagner has complained that she has had migraine headaches since she was a child. She went on to become a teacher, and worked at an elementary school until she was age 52. As a child, she was treated with Tylenol for the headaches. She sought treatment and began taking prescription medications for her migraines about ten years before her onset date in 2012. She also has been treated for depression and anxiety since at least 2003 by a psychiatrist, Dr. Stacy Siegel. Dr. Siegel noted that her recurring major depressive disorder was mild in 2004, but moderate in 2005, and moderate or severe later in 2005. Dr. Siegel's notes from 2012 frequently report Ms. Wagner's depression as moderate to severe, and note that the depression is accompanied by migraines, occasionally mentioning that Ms. Wagner missed up to a week of work because of a migraine. (Tr. at 317). In 2013, when treated ...

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