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Roper v. Berryhill

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

August 31, 2017





         On June 26, 2013, the claimant, Amanda Grace Roper, protectively applied for disability and disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (R. 136, 138, 176). In both applications, the claimant alleged disability beginning on June 26, 2013, because of neck and back pain, nerve damage, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression. (R. 69). The Commissioner denied the claims on September 5, 2013. (R. 68). The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on April 9, 2014. (R. 33).

         In a decision dated October 2, 2014, the ALJ found the claimant was not disabled under the Social Security Act and thus not entitled to social security benefits. (R. 22). On March 14, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review. (R. 1). The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. 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 reverses and remands the decision of the Commissioner.


         Whether the ALJ's decision to assign little weight to treating source Dr. Gerald M. Machen's medical assessment lacks substantial evidence.


         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).


         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)[2]; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         Absent good cause, the ALJ must give “substantial or considerable weight” to a treating physician's opinion. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011); see also Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). The ALJ must “clearly articulate” reasons for failing to give a treating physician substantial weight. Philips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004).

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was thirty-two years old at the time of the ALJ's final decision (R. 30); had completed tenth grade (R. 42); had past relevant work as a stocker and cashier (R. 56); and alleges disability based on pain in the neck and back, nerve damage in the arms and legs, neuropathy, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression. (R. 43-45, 69).

         Physical and Mental Impairments

         The claimant presented to Cullman Primary Care Neurology on March 14, 2012 complaining of a one-and-a-half-month history of pain. She described the pain as primarily in her right shoulder, extending down the right arm to the hand with “numbness and tingling in all digits” that worsened at night waking her from sleep. Dr. Sheri Swader conducted electrophysiological testing that indicated the claimant had right C8 radiculopathy with evidence of chronic motor axonal loss and reinnervation; however, she had no irritation of the paraspinal muscle area and no ...

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