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Tidwell v. Berryhill

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

September 19, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Barry Tidwell brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1] (“Commissioner”) denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Doc.[2] 1). The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. (Doc. 14). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         On May 30, 2014, Tidwell filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning April 18, 2014. (R.[3] 56, 115-16). His application was denied initially. (R. 56). Tidwell then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 7-9). The hearing was held on July 14, 2015. (R. 28-55). Tidwell, his counsel, and a vocational expert attended the hearing. (R. 28). The ALJ issued a decision on September 25, 2015, finding that Tidwell was not entitled to benefits. (R. 10-23). The Appeals Council denied Tidwell's request for review on April 15, 2016. (R. 1-5). Tidwell then filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To qualify for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show the “inability to 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 last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). To be eligible for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must demonstrate disability on or before the last date he was insured. See Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A)).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration requirements; (4) can perform [her] past relevant work, in light of [her] residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of [her] residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 Fed.Appx. 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)).[4] The claimant bears the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211. The applicable “regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Id.

         IV. FACTS

         A. The Medical Evidence

         Tidwell was 47 years old at the time of his hearing before the ALJ. (R. 115). He has a high school education and past work experience as a heavy machine operator, lay-out worker, and truck driver. (R. 21, 51, 152). He alleges that he has been unable to work since April 18, 2014, due primarily to the presence of “moderately severe back pain.”[5] (Doc. 11 at 4).

         The medical record reflects that Tidwell has a long history of back pain, which was exacerbated in August 2011 when he suffered a compression fracture (and fractured his ribs) in an all-terrain vehicle accident. (R. 470, 475). After a month recovering from the accident, Tidwell was able to resume his work as a machine operator but continued to complain of back pain. (R. 448, 452). His primary care physician, Dr. Cesar Romero, referred him for evaluation by pain management. (R. 448, 455). Tidwell was evaluated by Dr. Robert Thompson at North Mississippi Pain Management Center (“Pain Management Center”) in October 2011 and was given a thoracic epidural steroid injection (“ESI”). (R. 375). He received a second ESI the following month. (R. 368).

         Tidwell continued working in 2012 and 2013. In November 2013, Tidwell was seen by Dr. Romero and reported that his “chronic low back pain” had gotten worse over the past 2 to 3 months. (R. 402). However, examination did not show any positive straight leg raising tests and he was able to ambulate on his heels and toes. (Id.) Dr. Romero referred Tidwell to physical therapy. (Id.) The following month, Dr. Romero noted that Tidwell continued to have back pain and “did not tolerate” physical therapy. (R. 397).

         Dr. Romero referred Tidwell to Dr. Walter Eckman, a consulting neurosurgeon at Aurora Spine-Centers Mississippi. Dr. Eckman examined Tidwell on January 13, 2014. (R. 352-54). His examination found normal flexion/extension, stability, and muscle strength in Tidwell's back and normal range of motion, straight leg raising, stability, and muscle strength in his legs. (R. 353). Dr. Eckman also reviewed Tidwell's MRI, x-ray, and CT images and noted that the most recent MRI of Tidwell's thoracic spine, performed the prior week, showed “diffuse disk degeneration, most marked T10-11, T11-12; healed anterior compression fracture T12 and possible compression T11; small disk herniations T11-12 and T10-11 central right; [and] no significant canal or foraminal compromise.” (I ...

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