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McQuiston v. Berryhill

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

September 25, 2017

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



         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Josie Ann McQuiston, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”)[1] denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). She alleged disability with an onset date of September 1, 2009, but later requested a closed period of disability from May 17, 2011, until August 5, 2014. Ms. McQuiston timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the full dispositive jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c).

         Ms. McQuiston was 39 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision, and she has an eighth-grade education, which included special education classes for math and reading. (Tr. at 39-40). Her past work experience was as a cleaner and as an employee in a fast-food restaurant. (Tr. at 20). Ms. McQuiston claims that she was disabled from May 17, 2011, until August 5, 2014, because of recurrent staphylococcus (“staph”) infections. (Tr. at 33).[2]The medical evidence submitted to the ALJ indicates that Ms. McQuiston received treatment for her staph infections, which plaintiff describes as “Rare Staphylococcus Aureus that is oxacillin resistant.” (Doc. 13, pp. 1-2).

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he or she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant's physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be made, and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he or she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. McQuiston has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 22-23). She first determined that Ms. McQuiston met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2014. (Tr. at 14). She next found that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. Id. According to the ALJ, the plaintiff's recurring staph infection and anxiety are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 15). However, she found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. The ALJ determined that Ms. McQuiston's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible” (Tr. at 20), and she determined that the plaintiff has the ability to perform a range of light, unskilled work, but that she should not work in the food industry or the medical field because of the possibility of transmitting the infection, and because of the risk of causing her drug dependence to recur. (Tr. at 19).

         Moving on to the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ms. McQuiston is unable to perform her past relevant work as a fast food worker (Tr. at 20). The ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), and determined that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, including work as a garment sorter, a ticket marker, and a product assembler. (Tr. at 21). The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff is not disabled under Section 1520(f) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 22).

         II. Standard of Review

         This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). 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. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004), quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for “despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. McQuiston alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because the ALJ improperly failed to credit the plaintiff's testimony regarding her pain during active staph infections, and failed to consider her request for a closed period of disability.[3] (Doc. 13). The Commissioner has responded that the ALJ's decision is based on substantial evidence and is due to be affirmed.

         A brief discussion of the plaintiff's medical history is necessary in order to put the ALJ's decision into context. Ms. McQuiston asserts that she contracted the staph infection during her first incarceration in 2007.[4] After her release from prison in 2009, she first sought treatment for the staph infection at the emergency room of Huntsville Hospital on February 8, 2011, complaining of a burning arm pain that had begun four days earlier. She was noted to have a “small abscess size of dime under right armpit” [sic] with no fever. (Tr. at 583). The abscess was incised and drained, and covered with a band-aid. She was then discharged with antibiotics and pain medication, and she was warned to watch for signs of infection. (Tr. at 584).

         Her next treatment for a staph infection was May 14, 2011, which coincides with her onset date for the closed period of disability at issue here. Ms. McQuiston went to Huntsville Hospital ER and was assessed with a minor abscess on her abdomen that had been present for two days. She reported that her pain was at a level of 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. The doctor preformed an incision and drainage, and Ms. McQuiston was discharged with pain medication. (Tr. at 477-84). She returned on May 17, 2011, complaining that the pain ...

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