United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
CYNTHIA F. STEPHENS, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
E. OTT, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
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).
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) (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.
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).
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).
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,
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 ...