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Twilley v. Berryhill

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

September 28, 2017

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



         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Kathryn Alanna Twilley, appeals from the unfavorable decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”).[1] The plaintiff challenges the ALJ's finding that she was not disabled. Ms. Twilley 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 jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c). Accordingly, the court enters this memorandum opinion.

         Ms. Twilley was 40 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision, and she has a college education, including a master's degree. (Tr. at 41). Her past work experience is as a fifth-grade teacher. (Tr. at 43). Ms. Twilley claims that she became disabled on March 1, 2013, because of lupus, mitral valve prolapse, hypertension, Bell's palsy, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), and cervical degenerative disc disease. (Tr. at 157).

         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 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 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. pt. 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 she does 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 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, but 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. Twilley was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since March 1, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 31). He determined that Ms. Twilley has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 21). According to the ALJ, claimant's systemic lupus, arthralgias, and depression are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) He further determined that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 23). The ALJ found Ms. Twilley's allegations regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms to be “not entirely credible.” (Tr. at 26).

         The ALJ further determined that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work. (Tr. at 25). The ALJ further found that the claimant should be subject to exertional limitations of being able to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, and that she can stand/walk for six hours during an eight-hour work day with normal breaks, and can sit for six hours during an eight-hour work day with normal breaks. (Tr. at 25). In addition, the ALJ stated that the plaintiff could push and pull hand and foot controls with the same limitations as for lifting; that she can climb ramps and stairs occasionally, but that she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; that she can balance and stoop frequently; and can occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl. (Id.) He stated that she should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold, and cannot perform a job involving vibration. (Id.) She should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation. (Id.) She should avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and direct sunlight. (Id.) The ALJ also imposed the following nonexertional limitations: that she can understand and remember simple instructions and maintain attention and concentration sufficiently to carry out simple tasks during an eight-hour workday with[out] the need for special supervision or extra rest breaks; contact with the general public, co-workers, and supervisors should be occasional; changes in the workplace should be infrequent and well-explained. (Tr. at 25).[2]

         According to the ALJ, Ms. Twilley is unable to perform her past relevant work; and she was a “younger individual age 18-49” on the alleged onset date. (Tr. at 30). The ALJ further found that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform. (Tr. at 31).

         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). 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. Commn, 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 Adespite 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. Twilley alleges that the ALJ's adverse decision should be reversed and remanded because the ALJ: (1) failed to give proper weight to the opinion of an examining psychologist, Dr. Barry S. Wood, and a non-examining reviewer, Dr. Robert Estock; and (2) failed to consider the plaintiffs exemplary work history when evaluating her credibility. (Doc. 16). The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence from Drs. Wood and Estock regarding her psychological conditions, and that the ALJ's credibility determination comported with the applicable legal standards. (Doc. 17).

         A. Psychological ...

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