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Caudle v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017

ANGELA CAUDLE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Angela Caudle seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Caudle's claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Caudle applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on July 30, 2012. (R. 183, 186).[2] Ms. Caudle alleges that her disability began December 27, 2010. (R. 19, 183, 186). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Caudle's application on November 15, 2012. (R. 215-219). Ms. Caudle requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (R. 222-223). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 17, 2014. (R. 16-29). On January 19, 2016, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Caudle's request for review (R. 1), making the Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 1383(c).

         Ms. Caudle's July 30, 2012 benefits application is not her first. On September 10, 2010, she applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. In the 2010 application, Ms. Caudle alleged disability beginning on April 26, 2009. (R. 167). The Commissioner denied Ms. Caudle's 2010 application on December 30, 2010. (R. 20, 167). Ms. Caudle requested and had a hearing before an ALJ on May 2, 2012. (R. 167). On May 11, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision regarding Ms. Caudle's 2010 claim. (R. 167-78). Ms. Caudle did not appeal the ALJ's May 11, 2012 decision; therefore, the May 11, 2012 decision became final. (See R. 20).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991)).

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         To determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Caudle had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 12, 2012. (R. 22). The ALJ determined that Ms. Caudle suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with spondylosis, major depressive disorder without psychosis, episodic cannabis abuse in reported remission, and posttraumatic stress disorder. (R. 22). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Caudle does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 22).

         In light of Ms. Caudle's impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Caudle's residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Ms. Caudle has the RFC to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except: she can perform simple routine tasks requiring no more than short simple instructions and simple work related decision making with few work place changes. She can have occasional interactions with co-workers and supervisors and no interactions with members of the general public.

(R. 24). Based on this RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Caudle is able to perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper, a sewing machine operator, and a welding machine operator. (R. 29). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Caudle has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 29). The ALJ also determined that no grounds exist to reopen the May 11, 2012 decision denying Ms. Caudle's previous application for a period of disability and supplemental security income. (R. 20). Accordingly, the ALJ found that res judicata applies through May 11, 2012. (R. 20). Ms. Caudle does not challenge the ALJ's decision not to reopen the May 11, 2012 decision. (See Doc. 9).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Caudle argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of three consultative examiners and because the ALJ did not properly evaluate her subjective pain testimony under with the Eleventh Circuit pain standard. (Doc. 9, pp. 1-2). The Court considers these arguments in turn.

         A. THE ALJ GAVE PROPER WEIGHT TO THE OPINIONS OF MS. CAUDLE'S EXAMINING PHYSICIANS

         Ms. Caudle contends that the ALJ did not properly evaluate and give weight to the opinions of three consultative examiners: Dr. Belvia W. Matthews, Dr. William D. McDonald, and Dr. ...


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