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Scott v. Berryhill

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

August 31, 2017

ELIZA MAE SCOTT, CLAIMANT,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, RESPONDENT.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On June 27, 2013, the claimant, Eliza Mae Scott, protectively applied for supplemental social security income and disability insurance benefits because of her status after a motor vehicle accident with degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, and obesity. The Commissioner denied the claims initially on August 27, 2013. The claimant timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and that hearing took place on December 10, 2014. (R. 34, 43).

         In a decision dated January 26, 2015, the ALJ found the claimant not disabled under Title XVI or Title II, because medical evidence does not support her subjective testimony. The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before the Appeals Council on April 16, 2015. The Appeals Council denied the claimant's appeal because her new evidence did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ's decision. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on January 26, 2015.

         The claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, this court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner. (R. 13, 43).

         II. ISSUE PRESENTED

         The claimant presents the following issues for review:

         (1) whether the ALJ committed reversible error in applying the subjective pain standard.

         (2) whether the ALJ committed reversible error by not properly evaluating claimant's additional medical evidence submitted after the ALJ's decision.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and if the factual conclusions are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

         “No . . . presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal claims.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the Commissioner's factual determinations de novo. The court will affirm those factual determinations that are supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors “are not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as substantial evidence in the record supports it.

         The court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s factual findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not look only to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person cannot “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 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). To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process:

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
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)[1]; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was 52 years old at the time of the ALJ's final decision; had completed the 9th grade; had past substantial gainful experience as a security guard, forklift operator, order filler, home attendant, and stylist; and alleges disability based on her status after a motor vehicle accident with degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, and obesity. (R. 53, 66-67, 187, 206).

         Physical Impairments

         The claimant's problems came to light on January 26, 2013, when Regional Paramedic transported the claimant to St. Vincent's Birmingham Emergency Room because of whiplash from being rear ended in a motor vehicle accident. The claimant complained of upper back pain, midline neck pain, and headaches, and she denied any upper or lower extremity pain. Dr. Jerod Lindsey Lunsford, an emergency room physician, treated the claimant, and prescribed her Lortab (for pain) and released her the same day. Dr. Allen B. Oser, a radiologist at St. Vincent's Hospital Radiology/Medical Imaging, analyzed the CT taken of the claimant, and found no evidence of acute traumatic injury or any acute abnormality, but did find degenerative discs in her cervical spine on January 27, 2013. (R. 237-238, 243, 247).

         On February 7, 2013, the claimant visited Alabama Spine and Rehabilitation Center after her accident, complaining of headaches and measuring her neck pain as eight on a ten point scale. Dr. Dory Curtis, an orthopedist, found that the claimant had a neck strain with no signs of any neurologic problems and had normal strength in her upper extremities. On February 11, 2013, Dr. Curtis assessed that the claimant needed six weeks of rehabilitation with a home exercise program. (R. 251-255).

         Between February 7, 2013 and April 17, 2013, Alabama Spine and Rehabilitation Center treated the claimant fourteen times and Dr. Curtis found on March 28, 2013, that she still complained of the same level of neck pain but had normal strength in her upper extremities, looked and walked very comfortably, and moved her neck well. Dr. Curtis ...


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