United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division
E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge
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 (“Commissioner”)
denying his application for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 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.
30, 2014, Tidwell filed an application for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging
disability beginning April 18, 2014. (R. 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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
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)).
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)). 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.”
The Medical Evidence
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.” (Doc. 11 at 4).
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).
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).
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 ...