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Claypool v. Berryhill

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

September 1, 2017

EDWINA MAE CLAYPOOL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [2]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The plaintiff seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). The plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the case is therefore ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At the time she applied for benefits, December 7, 2012 (R. 99), the plaintiff was fifty-one years old (R. 54). She is a high school graduate with past relevant work as a unit clerk and a receptionist. (R. 47, 170). She claimed a disability onset date of March 13, 2012, due to epilepsy, spondylolisthesis, memory loss, cognitive loss, sleep apnea, and depression. (R. 169-70). After the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied her application (R. 68), the plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on October 28, 2014. (R. 34). After the hearing, the ALJ found the plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments listed in, or medically equivalent to, one listed in the Listings of Impairments. (R. 20). The ALJ further found the plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work (R. 21) and that she could return to her past relevant work as a receptionist. (R. 25). In light of these findings, the ALJ denied the plaintiff's request for a period of disability and DIB on January 9, 2015. (Id.).

         The plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision (R. 2), which the Appeals Council denied. (R. 3). Therefore, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (Id.) The plaintiff then filed the appeal in this court on April 25, 2016, seeking reversal and remand of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 1; Doc. 13 at 12).

         The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for a period of disability and DIB. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2). First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c). The burden is on the claimant to “provide medical evidence showing ... impairment(s)” and the severity of them during the time the claimant alleges disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(c). An impairment is “severe” if it “significantly limits [a] claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997). “An impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner must then determine whether the claimant's impairment meets the duration requirement and whether it is equivalent to any one of the listed impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d)-(e); § 404.1525; § 404.1526. Listed impairments are so severe that they prevent an individual from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (The Listings). If the claimant's impairment meets or equals a Listing, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment does not meet or equal the criteria of any Listing, the claimant must prove that her impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f).

         At step four, the Commissioner “will first compare [the Commission's] assessment of [the claimant's] residual functional capacity [“RFC”] with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b). If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, the Commissioner will find she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(3). If the claimant establishes that she is unable to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner must show that the claimant-in light of her RFC, age, education, and work experience-is capable of performing other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(1). If the claimant is not capable of performing such other work, the Commissioner must find the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         Applying these steps, the ALJ determined the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since her alleged onset date. (R. 18). At step two, the ALJ considered only the plaintiff's degenerative disc disease to be a severe impairment, finding the plaintiff's seizure disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, and depression to be non-severe because they did not significantly affect the plaintiff's ability to do work. (R. 18-19). Next, the ALJ found the plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any Listing. (R. 20). The ALJ determined the plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), including the ability to carry and lift up to ten pounds; stand and/or walk four of eight hours; never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl; occasionally push and pull with her legs; avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes and vibrations; and avoid dangerous machinery, unprotected heights, and large bodies of water. (R. 21). At step four, considering this RFC, the ALJ determined the plaintiff court return to her past relevant work as a receptionist. (R. 25).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court is limited to an inquiry into whether substantial evidence exists to support the findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 Fed. App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). The court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner but reviews questions of law de novo. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007). The court “may not decide the 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), rather it must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015). “The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir.2005).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of the plaintiff's complaints of back pain consistent with the Eleventh Circuit pain standard and that the ALJ failed to properly articulate good cause to accord less than controlling weight to the opinion of the plaintiff's treating physician. (Doc. 13 at 4, 9).

         A. Failure to Apply the ...


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