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Williams v. Berryhill

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

November 17, 2017

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


          John E. Ott, Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Jerry Leon Williams 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”)[1] denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1).[2] 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.


         Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI, alleging disability beginning January 15, 2013. (R. 124, 131).[3] His claims were denied initially on April 19, 2013. (R. 77). Plaintiff then requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 85). A hearing was held on April 4, 2014. (R. 31). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for DIB and SSI on October 24, 2014. (R. 6). Review by the Appeals Council was requested and denied. (R. 1). Plaintiff filed this action on June 16, 2016. (Doc. 1 at 1). This matter is properly before the court for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision 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.

         The 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. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To qualify for DIB and SSI 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. § 1382(a)(3)(A). 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(D).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a sever 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 his past relevant work, in light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 Fed.Appx. 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014)[4] (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)). Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). 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.” Id.


         Plaintiff was 60 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 5, 76). He possesses a 10th grade education. (R. 166). He has worked as a brick mason, a concrete finisher, and a packer of coat hangers. (R. 34-35). He has been unemployed since 2013. (R. 40). As noted above, his alleged disability onset date is January 15, 2013. (R. 37, 79). Plaintiff alleges his disability is due to arthritis in his shoulder, back problems, high blood pressure, and leg problems. (R. 165). He initially experienced back pain when he bent over and tried to pick up a box at work in about November 2012. (R. 18). He “heard and felt a pop in his mid-back.” (Id.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairment is lumbar spine degenerative joint disease. (R. 11). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has hypertension that is not “severe, ” and that there is no medical evidence establishing alleged shoulder, leg, and neuropathy problems. (R. 17).

         After careful consideration of Plaintiff's impairments, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(c).[5] (R. 17). Premised on the testimony of the vocational expert at the hearing, the ALJ then determined that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work because the work does not require the performance of activities precluded by his RFC. (R. 22).

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff asserts five arguments in support of reversal and remand of his case: (1) the ALJ improperly accepted the opinion of Dr. Thomas A. Wilson, a workers compensation treating physician, as binding (doc. 10 at 13); (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of Dr. Zakir Naeem Khan, a consultative physical examiner (id. at 13); (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of Dr.

         Odjegba, Plaintiff's present treating physician (id. at 15); (4) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff is not precluded from past work is not supported by substantial evidence (id. at 16); and (5) the ALJ erred in not identifying any other medium jobs Plaintiff can perform (id. at 17).

         A. The ALJ properly evaluated Dr. Wilson's opinion and did not accept the opinion as binding.

         Plaintiff initially argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating Dr. Wilson's opinion because he improperly accepted Dr. Wilson's statement that Plaintiff had only a five percent impairment rating and could return to work without restriction as binding on his decision. (Doc. 10 at 12-13). Plaintiff contends it also was error for the ALJ to accept as binding a physician's statement that includes a workers compensation ratings finding that a claimant is not disabled. (Id. at 13). The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated Dr. Wilson's opinion and found that the opinion supports his RFC assessment. (Doc. 11 at 8).

         The Eleventh Circuit has held that medical source statements that a claimant is disabled for purposes of workers compensation impairment ratings are not binding on the ALJ and that the Social Security Act's definition of disability controls because the ultimate issue of disability is left to the Commissioner. Symonds v. Astrue, 448 Fed.Appx. 10, 13 (11th Cir. 2011). Here, however, there is nothing in the ALJ's opinion to suggest that he accepted Dr. Wilson's opinion as binding. The ALJ stated that he gave the opinion a “great deal of ...

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