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Seales v. Berryhill

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

September 8, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Margaret Elizabeth Seales seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Seales's claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. After careful review, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.[1]


         Ms. Seales applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on February 28, 2013. (Doc. 6-6, p. 2). Ms. Seales alleges that her disability began on May 20, 2012. (Doc. 6-6, p. 2). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Seales's claim on April 23, 2013. (Doc. 6-5, p. 2). Ms. Seales requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-5, p. 7). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 7, 2014. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 58-71). On September 17, 2015, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Seales's request for review (Doc. 6-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Seales has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 20, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 6-3, p. 63). The ALJ determined that Ms. Seales suffers from the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, diabetes, sleep apnea, right hip bursitis, and osteoarthritis of the knees. (Doc. 6-3, p. 63). The ALJ found that Ms. Seales suffers from the following non-severe impairments: osteopenia, left foot arthritis, trigger fingering, fecal incontinence, diabetic neuropathy, depressive disorder, and anxiety. (Doc. 6-3, p. 64). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Seales does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 6-3, p. 66).

         Based on Ms. Seales's impairments, the ALJ examined Ms. Seales's residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Ms. Seales has the RFC to perform:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can stand/walk at most 4 hours per 8-hour day; can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally; can frequently engage in fine and gross manipulation bilaterally; must avoid all exposure to extreme vibration; and must have only occasional exposure to unprotected heights, use of hazardous machinery, and operational control of moving machinery.

(Doc. 6-3, p. 66). Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Seales is able to perform her past relevant work as an assistant manager, courier, document specialist, and cafeteria worker. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 70-71). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Seales has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, p. 71).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Seales argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her subjective complaints of pain consistent with the Eleventh Circuit's three-part pain standard.

         “To establish a disability based on testimony of pain and other symptoms, the claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test by showing ‘(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged pain; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.'” Zuba-Ingram v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 600 Fed.Appx. 650, 656 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (per curiam)). A claimant's testimony coupled with evidence that meets this standard “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). If an ALJ discredits a claimant's subjective testimony, then the ALJ “must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225. “While an adequate credibility finding need not cite particular phrases or formulations[, ] broad findings that a claimant lacked credibility . . . are not enough. . . .” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1562 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam); see SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 at *2 (“The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to the individual and to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the individual's statements and the reasons for that weight.”).[2]

         During her administrative hearing, Ms. Seales testified that she stopped working because she has trouble “bending, lifting, [and] staying on [her] feet for a long period of time.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 25). According to Ms. Seales, she cannot sit or stand for long periods of time, and lifting “puts a strain on [her] neck and on [her] back.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 25). Ms. Seales testified that she walks but is limited by neuropathy in her feet that causes stinging and swelling. (Doc. 6-3, p. 29). At home, when Ms. Seales finishes doing dishes, her back hurts and she has to take a pain pill and lie down. (Doc. 6-3, p. 30). Ms. Seales testified that she must shop for groceries slowly and that it typically takes two to three hours to complete her shopping because of her pain. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 31-32). Ms. Seales does some laundry, but her husband and her daughter help with “the bending and lifting.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 33). When the ALJ asked Ms. Seales to explain her biggest problem, Ms. Seales answered that “[i]t's anything that requires the bending and lifting and just the constant movement in my arms because I can't even dry my hair without having to stop and rest two or three times because of lifting up my arms.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 35). Ms. Seales stated that she can no longer bowl, garden, or play tennis. (Doc. 6-3, p. 38). Ms. Seales has trouble driving because she is “limited in the movement of [her] neck so it's very hard to . . . check [her] blind spots.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 37).

         Ms. Seales receives cervical blocks every four months. (Doc. 6-3, p. 38). Between the blocks, Ms. Seales testified that she loses feeling in her hands. (Doc. 6-3, p. 39). Ms. Seales takes Lortab for her pain which she claims makes her nauseous. (Doc. 6-3, p. 39). If Ms. Seales takes Lortab and anti-nausea medicine together, then she must sleep for about an hour and a half. (Doc. 6-3, p. 39).[3]

         The ALJ explained that Ms. Seales's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably have been expected to produce the alleged symptoms, but the alleged intensity, persistence, duration, and impact on functioning are not credible or consistent with the totality of the evidence.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 67). The ALJ articulated explicit and adequate reasons for rejecting Ms. Seales's testimony about the severity of her back and neck pain. The ALJ rejected Ms. Seales's subjective pain testimony because he found that the testimony is inconsistent with the objective medical evidence as a ...

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