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Nicholas v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 8, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Ashley Nicholas (hereinafter “Plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. On October 5, 2017, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 14). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History[2]

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for benefits on January 21, 2013, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2010, based on “fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, hypertension, high cholesterol, insomnia, loss of motor function, limited ambulation, burn, and obesity.” (Doc. 7-6 at 4, 7). Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Linda J. Helm on September 26, 2014. (Doc. 7-2 at 63). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Id.). A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Doc. 7-2 at 94). On May 28, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Doc. 7-2 at 47). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 8, 2016. (Doc. 7-2 at 2). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated May 28, 2015, became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was conducted on October 26, 2017 (Doc. 17), and the parties agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. Issues on Appeal

1. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to assign controlling weight to the opinions of treating physician, Dr. Paul Smith, M.D., while assigning great weight to the opinions of consultative physician, Dr. Nathaniel Hernandez, M.D.?
2. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to find that Plaintiff's fibromyalgia, in combination with her rheumatoid arthritis, medically equaled Listing 14.09D? [3]

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on August 16, 1964, and was fifty years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on September 26, 2014. (Doc. 7-2 at 69; Doc. 7-6 at 4). Plaintiff graduated from high school and took college courses in nursing for one month. (Doc. 7-2 at 71).

         Plaintiff has worked intermittently as a fast food worker, domestic housekeeper, and hospital cleaner from 2009 to 2011. (Doc. 7-2 at 72-74, 95-97). At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she cannot work now because she cannot stand more than ten minutes because of hip pain; she has trouble concentrating; and her medications make her disoriented. (Doc. 7-2 at 75, 77, 91). Plaintiff's medications include Lyrica for fibromyalgia, Xanax for insomnia, Viibryd for depression, and Mobic for pain in her back and legs, and she reported that all of them provide her with some relief. (Doc. 7-2 at 76, 84, 90). The side effects from Plaintiff's medications include weight gain and nervousness/shaking. (Doc. 7-2 at 91, 94).

         IV. Standard of Review

         In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied.[4] Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance” and consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable, as well as unfavorable, to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).

         V. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant has proven his disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The claimant must first prove that he or she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity. The second step requires the claimant to prove that he or she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. If, at the third step, the claimant proves that the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience. If the claimant cannot prevail at the third step, he or she must proceed to the fourth step where the claimant must prove an inability to perform their past relevant work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986). In evaluating whether the claimant has met this burden, the examiner must consider the following four factors: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the claimant's age, education and work history. Id. Once a claimant meets this burden, it becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove at the fifth step that the claimant is capable of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment which exists in significant numbers in the national economy, given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work history. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). If the Commissioner can demonstrate that there are such jobs the claimant can perform, the claimant must prove inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). See also Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Francis v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 1562, 1564 (11th Cir. 1985)).

         VI. Discussion

         A. Substantial evidence supports the weight that the ALJ accorded to the expert medical opinions in this case.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assigning little weight to the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Paul Smith, M.D., while assigning great weight to the opinion of consultative internist, Dr. Nathaniel Hernandez, M.D. (Doc. 7-7 at 110; Doc. 8 at 2-8). Defendant counters that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assignment of weight to the expert opinions in this case, as well as the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a range of light work. (Doc. 11 at 6). Having reviewed the record at length, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claim is without merit.

         In this case, the ALJ found at step two of the sequential evaluation process that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, obesity, affective disorder/depression with anxiety, and hypertension/history of burn.[5] (Doc. 7-2 at 49). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's respiratory impairment and hypercholesterolemia were not severe impairments.[6] (Doc. 7-2 at 51). The ALJ also concluded that Plaintiff has the Residual Functional Capacity for light work, with the following restrictions: “she can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; she must alternate between sitting, standing, and walking about every hour but would not need to leave the workstation; she can push and pull within the cited weight tolerances, but is limited to occasional operation of foot controls bilaterally; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds: she can occasionally balance, stoop and crouch but never kneel or crawl; she must avoid unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts; she must avoid tasks involving a variety of instructions or tasks but is able to understand to carry out simple 1- or 2-step instructions; she can understand to carry out detailed but uninvolved written or oral instructions involving a few concrete variables in or from standardized situations; she can tolerate occasional contact with coworkers, primarily superficial and without teamwork requirements; she cannot interact with the public; when dealing with changes in the work setting, she is limited to simple work-related decisions.” (Doc. 7-2 at 53). Based on the testimony of the VE, in conjunction with the other evidence of record, the ALJ found that, Plaintiff cannot perform her past work as a fast food worker, domestic housekeeper, or hospital cleaner; however, she can perform the jobs of bench assembler, office helper, and garment sorter, all light and unskilled. (Doc. 7-2 at 57, 100-01). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled.

         Residual functional capacity is a measure of what a claimant can do despite his or her credible limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. Determinations of a claimant's residual functional capacity are reserved for the ALJ, and the assessment is to be based upon all the relevant evidence of a claimant's remaining ability to work despite his or her impairments, and must be supported by substantial evidence. See Beech v. Apfel, 100 F.Supp.2d 1323, 1331 (S.D. Ala. 2000) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546 and Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)); Saunders v. Astrue, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39571, *10, 2012 WL 997222, *4 (M.D. Ala. March 23, 2012). Once the ALJ has determined the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. See Flynn v. Heckler, 768 F.2d 1273, 1274 (11th Cir. 1985). Plaintiff has failed to meet her burden in this case.

         As part of the disability determination process, the ALJ is tasked with weighing the opinions and findings of treating, examining, and non-examining physicians. In reaching a decision, the ALJ must specify the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons for doing so. See Winschel v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1179 (11th Cir. 2011). The failure to do so is ...

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