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Knight v. Berryhill

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

September 26, 2017





         On October 30, 2012, the claimant, Jack Marshall Knight, Jr., applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. He alleged disability beginning June 10, 2010, because of severe neck and cervical spine injuries; anxiety disorder; and depression. The Commissioner denied the claimant's applications on March 5, 2013. The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on March 20, 2014. (R. 1-8, 141-49, 219).

         In a decision dated July 10, 2014, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and was, therefore, ineligible for social security benefits. On September 11, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Social Security Administration. The claimant has exhausted his administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (R. 5-8, 9-24). For the reasons stated below, this court will reverse and remand the decision of the Commissioner.


         Whether the ALJ's reasons for discrediting the claimant's statements regarding the intensity and limiting effects of his pain lack substantial evidence.


         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if he applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports his factual conclusions. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

         “No ... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the Commissioner's factual determinations de novo. The court will affirm those factual determinations that are supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971).

         The court must keep in mind that opinions, such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors, “are not medical opinions, ... but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant meets a Listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court “may not decide 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). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as substantial evidence in the record supports it.

         The court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s factual findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable 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). To make this determination the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process:

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of “not disabled.”

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         In evaluating pain and other subjective complaints, the Commissioner must consider whether the claimant demonstrated an underlying medical condition, and either (1) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (2) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can reasonably be expected to give rise to the alleged pain. Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). The ALJ may consider the claimant's daily activities in evaluating and discrediting complaints of disabling pain. Harwell v. Heckler, 735 F.2d 1292, 1293 (11th Cir. 1984).

         If the ALJ decides to discredit the claimant's testimony regarding his pain and other symptoms, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for that decision. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561-62 (11th Cir. 1995). If substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's credibility finding, the ALJ commits reversible error. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1562.

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was fifty-nine years old at the time of the ALJ's final decision. He graduated from high school, completed one year of college, and has past relevant work as a customer service representative and a sales attendant. He alleges disability based on severe neck and cervical spine injuries; anxiety disorder; and depression. (R. 219-20).

         Physical and Mental Impairments

         The claimant's back issues began in 1995 when he underwent a cervical fusion at ¶ 6-C7; he had another cervical fusion in 1999 at ¶ 5-C6 at St. Vincent's Hospital. (R. 499). Then, in June 2003, the claimant was involved in a motor vehicle accident in which he fractured his cervical spine at ¶ 3. Dr. Katherine Medley at UAB Hospital treated the claimant and noted that his hardware from his previous surgeries were in tact; he had left knee tenderness but no effusion; x- rays showed no hand, knee, or leg fractures; and he had no soft tissue swelling. Dr. Medley treated the claimant with narcotic medications for pain and a hard cervical collar.

         At his follow-up at UAB Health Centers with Dr. Amy LeJeune on July 24, 2003, she noted that the claimant had been taking Ativan for some withdrawal symptoms he had while trying to discontinue the narcotic medications prescribed after his June car accident. Dr. LeJeune noted that the claimant indicated hip pain, but had full range of motion in his hip with no tenderness. At another follow-up with Dr. LeJeune on October 6, 2003, the claimant's main complaint was his increased anxiety, ...

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