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Goree v. Berryhill

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

August 23, 2017

BETTY FULLER GOREE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Social Security Commissioner Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE P. NELSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) Plaintiff, Betty Goree, ("Goree" or "Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of an adverse social security ruling denying supplemental security income. (Docs. 1, 18). 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. 22, 23). The parties moved to waive oral argument and their request was granted. (See Docs. 21, 24). 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.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively applied for supplemental security income on May 1, 2013. (Doc. 18 at 1; Tr. 179)[2]. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of February 15, 2012. (Doc. 17; Fact Sheet). Her application was initially denied on July 24, 2013, after which she requested a hearing. (Doc. 18 at 1; Tr. 112-115). Plaintiff attended a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on July 15, 2014, and the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on January 12, 2015. (Doc. 18 at 1; Tr. at 11-33, 125-51).

         At the time of her application, Plaintiff was thirty eight years old, had attended, but not completed, the twelfth grade, and had previous work history as a cosmetologist. (Doc. 17; Tr. at 57). Plaintiff alleges she is disabled due to depression/dysthymic disorder, high blood pressure, diabetes, back pain (broad based protrusion at ¶ 4-5 with radiculopathy; disc bulge L5-Sl), hip pain, chronic keloid pain, anxiety/nervousness, obesity, side effects from medication, and chronic pain syndrome. (Doc. 17). On January 12, 2015, an ALJ denied benefits after determining that Plaintiff was capable of performing a limited range of light work. (Tr. at 20). Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision, but the Appeals Council denied the request on June 13, 2016. (Id. at 1-6).

         Plaintiff asserts that the following grounds for error: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to follow the Eleventh Circuit's pain standard, (2) the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ failed to include all of Ms. Goree's limitations in the hypotheticals posed to the vocational expert ("VE"). (Doc. 18 at 1). Defendant has responded to-and denies-these claims. (Doc. 19, generally).

         STANDARD OF 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).

         DISCUSSION

         At step two of the sequential process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of keloids, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, lumbar disc disease with spondylosis/osteoarthritis, obesity, chronic pain syndrome, and dysthymic disorder (versus major depression) (20 CFR 416.920(c)). (Tr. at 16). At step three, the ALJ found that "[t]he claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1(20 CFR, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926)." (Id. at 17). The ALJ then determined Plaintiffs RFC as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that on a function-by-function basis, the claimant can occasionally push-pull with upper extremities. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She cannot crawl. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and crouch. She can frequently reach except she can only occasionally overhead reach. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures. She must avoid all exposure to dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. Mentally, she can perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks. She can maintain attention and concentration to perform such tasks for two-hour increments throughout the workday. She can have casual contact with the general public throughout the workday.

(Tr. at 20). With the help of a vocational expert, the ALJ then determined, at step five, that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a day worker and hand packer as previously performed by the claimant. It was additionally determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing other jobs which existed in the national economy and that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 27-28).

         Plaintiff asserts that the following grounds for error: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to follow the Eleventh Circuit's pain standard, (2) the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ failed to include all of Ms. Goree's limitations in the hypotheticals posed to the vocational expert. (Doc. 18 at 1). Defendant contends the ALJ's followed the pain standard, that his decision was based on substantial evidence, and that there were no deficiencies with the vocational hypotheticals or the vocational expert's testimony. (Doc. 19, generally). The undersigned will address each contention of error in turn.

         A. Eleventh Circuit's Pain Standard

         Pain is not amenable to objective measurement. See 20 C.F.R.§ 416.928. As a result, the Eleventh Circuit in Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221 (11th Cir. 1991), articulated the "pain standard, " which applies when a disability claimant attempts to establish a disability through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms. The pain standard requires:

(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it ...

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