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Bedwell v. Berryhill

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

August 9, 2017

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



         In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) Plaintiff, Kristina Bedwell, (“Bedwell” or “Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of an adverse social security ruling denying disability insurance benefits. (Docs. 1, 12). With the consent of the parties, the Court has designated the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and S.D. Ala. GenLR 73. (See Docs. 15, 17). The parties moved to waive oral argument and their request was granted. (See Docs. 15, 18). After considering the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED and that this action be DISMISSED.


         Plaintiff protectively applied for disability insurance beneifts income on June 25, 2013. (Doc. 12 at 1; Tr. 130-33). Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of April 23, 2012. (Doc. 12 at 1; Tr. 130). Her application was initially denied on October 1, 2013, after which she requested a hearing. (Doc. 12 at 1; Tr. 73-81). Plaintiff attended a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on January 28, 2015, and the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on May 5, 2015. (Doc. 12 at 1; Tr. at 12-57).

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was thirty-seven years old with a high school diploma, three years of college courses, and previous work history as a police dispatcher and mail carrier. (Doc. 12-1; Fact Sheet). Plaintiff alleges she is disabled due to cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, obesity, PTSD, and depression. (Id.) On May 5, 2015, an ALJ denied benefits after determining that Plaintiff was capable of performing a reduced level of light work and, therefore, was not disabled. (Tr. at 19-26). Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision, but the Appeals Council denied the request on August 25, 2016. (Tr. at 1-7).

         Plaintiff asserts four grounds for error. (Doc 12) Defendant has responded to-and denies-that any error occurred. (Doc. 13, generally). The issues have been fully briefed and are now ripe for review.


         “In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is ‘ “supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” ' ” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997))). However, the Court “ ‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].' ” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983))). “ ‘Even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s factual findings, we must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.' ” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         “Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as automatons. [The court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted). See also Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are neither to conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp the administrative decisions that come before us. Rather, our function is to ensure that the decision was based on a reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was carefully considered in light of all the relevant facts.”). “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must…tak[e] into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).

         Although the “claimant bears the burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work, the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair record.” Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987). See also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“It is well-established that the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record. Nevertheless, the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” (citations omitted)). “This is an onerous task, as the ALJ must scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts. In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider the evidence as a whole.” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citation and quotation omitted).

         Where, as here, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied review of that decision, the Court “review[s] the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision.” Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278. “[W]hen the [Appeals Council] has denied review, [the Court] will look only to the evidence actually presented to the ALJ in determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1323 (11th Cir. 1998).


         At step three of the sequential process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, obesity, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. (Tr. at 17).

         At step four, the ALJ found that “[t]he claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).” (Tr. at 26). The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's medical history as follows:

         The claimant began having gradually worsening neck pain with numbness extending into her hands while working as a postal worker. She had a fainting spell at work in January of 2012. She was diagnosed with hypoglycemia but also started on depression medication (Exhibit 1F, 2F). She had a nerve study that did not show carpel tunnel syndrome. On April 30, 2012, the claimant had an MRI of the cervical spine that showed a small disc herniation at ¶ 5-6 and a small annular tear at ¶ 4-5 (Exhibits 4F, 12F). She had an epidural block on June 28, 2012 that did not provide much relief (Exhibit 6F). She was referred to Alabama Orthopedics and was seen there on July 5, 2012. She had a cervical discogram on July 24, 2012 that showed an annular tear at ¶ 5-6 and annular fissuring at ¶ 6-7 (Exhibit 7F). The Claimant underwent a cervical decompression and interbody fusion on September 4, 2012. After six weeks, she was reportedly doing very well and released to part time work at the post office with return to full time in one additional week. In December, she continued to complain of cervical pain at level 3/10 and numbness in her forearm so she was started on Neurontin and Zanaflex. X-rays showed good placement of the hardware and bone grafting material present. In January of 2013, she continued to complain of worsening neck pain so an MRI was done. The MRI showed the fusion plate from C5-7; a very subtle bulge at ¶ 3-4 with mild canal narrowing without foraminal stenosis; and a subtle bulge at ¶ 4-5 with mild central canal narrowing and no foraminal stenosis. She was then referred to pain management (Exhibit 10F). She began physical therapy at the end of January but was discharged in April for non-compliance (Exhibit 11F). In June of 2013, she [had] an additional epidural steroid injection (Exhibit 14F).

         The ALJ determined that “[t]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced level of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). She can lift and carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. She can sit for at least six hours in an eight-hour day and stand/walk in combination at least six hours in an eight-hour day. She can frequently reach overhead bilaterally and con [sic] only occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She cannot work at unprotected heights. She is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with no more than occasional contact with the public.” (Id. at 19-20).

         Plaintiff asserts the following grounds for error: (1) The ALJ erred in failing to give substantial weight, if not controlling weight, to the opinions of the treating physician, Dr. Kidd, (2) the ALJ erred in making an RFC assessment inconsistent with the evidentiary record, (3) the ALJ erred in giving greater weight to the opinion of a reviewing, non-examining psychologist than the opinion of the treating psychiatrist, Dr. Cummings, and (4) the ALJ erred in failing to properly assess Ms. Bedwell's pain and medication side effects in the RFC determination. (Doc. 12 at 2). The undersigned will address each contention of error in turn.

         A. The Opinions of ...

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