United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
F. BIVINS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
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).
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,
2. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to find that
Plaintiff's fibromyalgia, in combination with her
rheumatoid arthritis, medically equaled Listing 14.09D?
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).
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).
Standard of Review
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. 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).
Statutory and Regulatory Framework
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.
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)).
Substantial evidence supports the weight that the ALJ
accorded to the expert medical opinions in this
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.
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. (Doc. 7-2 at 49). The ALJ
determined that Plaintiff's respiratory impairment and
hypercholesterolemia were not severe
impairments. (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.
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.
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 ...