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Stephens v. Berryhill

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

January 26, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Cynthia Stephens 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”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1).[1] 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. (See Doc. 16). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         Plaintiff filed her current DIB application in December 2012, alleging she became disabled beginning June 13, 2012. (R. 11, 143). It was initially denied. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on August 6, 2014 (R. 29) and issued an unfavorable decision on January 30, 2015 (R. 8-24). The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-6).

         II. FACTS

         Plaintiff was 52 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 22, 143). She has a limited education, having completed the eleventh grade, and has worked in the past as a laborer. (R. 22, 51, 188). Plaintiff alleged onset of disability on June 13, 2012, due to various medical conditions and surgeries. (R. 187).

         Following a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: a history of an anterior cruciate ligament (“ACL”) tear, a medial collateral ligament (“MCL”) tear, a right knee MCL tear, and a posterior cruciate ligament (“PCL”) tear; status post debridement of a partial labra tear acromial decompression; degenerative disc disease; obesity; hypertension; and loss of vision in the right eye. (R. 13). He also found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (R. 18). He further found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, but she: (1) could not operate foot or leg controls, or push or pull with the lower extremities; (2) could never crawl, lift overhead, or reach overhead; (3) could only occasionally reach in all other directions and climb, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; (4) could not perform any jobs requiring bilateral vision or depth perception; (5) should avoid any exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery; and (6) should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat or cold, wetness, humidity, or vibrations. (R. 18). The ALJ then found Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work but, based on testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), could perform other work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 22-23, 52-53). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 23).


         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 benefits 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). 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).

         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 severe 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 F. App'x 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014)[2] (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)). The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she 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.

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ did not properly consider her subjective complaints of significant neck and arm pain and her allegations of significant limitations in walking and standing in assessing her RFC. (Doc. 11 at 2, 6-8). She also argues that the ALJ “appears to have rejected the testimony and medical evidence of numerous other care providers ... and discounted the testimony of the vocational expert.” (Id. at 2). The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision and Plaintiff's arguments are “unavailing.” (Doc. 15 at 4-6).

         As noted in the previous section, Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), (d)(5); Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). Specifically, Plaintiff has the burden to provide relevant medical and other evidence she believes will prove her alleged disability resulting from her physical or mental impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(a)-(b), 404.1516. In analyzing the evidence, the focus is on how an impairment affects a claimant's ability to work, and not on the impairment itself. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a); McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1547 (11th Cir. 1986) (severity of impairments must be measured in terms of their effect on the ability to work, not from purely medical standards of bodily perfection or normality).

         In addressing a claimant's subjective description of pain and symptoms, the law is clear:

In order to establish a disability based on testimony of pain and other symptoms, the claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test showing: (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged pain; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain. See Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). If the ALJ discredits subjective testimony, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so. See Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987). Failure to articulate the reasons for discrediting subjective testimony requires, as a matter of law, that the testimony be accepted as true. See Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir. 1988).

Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225; see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A), 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929.

         When evaluating a claimant's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, or limiting effects of her symptoms, the ALJ considers all the evidence - objective and subjective. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929. The ALJ may consider the nature of a claimant's symptoms, the effectiveness of medication, a claimant's method of treatment, a claimant's activities, measures a claimant takes to relieve symptoms, and any conflicts between a claimant's statements and the rest of the evidence. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), (4), 416.929(c)(3), (4). The ALJ is not required explicitly to conduct a symptom analysis, but the reasons for his or her findings must be clear enough that they are obvious to a reviewing court. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d ...

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