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Earheart v. Berryhill

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

March 8, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Andrew B. Earheart (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. On October 5, 2017, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 13). 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 filed his application for benefits on May 1, 2015. (Doc. 7-5 at 2). Plaintiff alleged that he has been disabled since August 1, 2014, based on “PTSD, anxiety disorder, depression, and ADD.” (Doc. 7-6 at 7, 10).

         Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, he was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge James F. Barter (hereinafter “ALJ”) on November 2, 2015, and on February 7, 2016.[3] (Doc. 7-2 at 37, 120). Plaintiff attended the second hearing with his counsel and provided testimony related to his claims. (Doc. 7-2 at 42). A vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at both hearings. (Doc. 7-2 at 60, 126). On June 24, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Doc. 7-2 at 20). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 4, 2016. (Doc. 7-2 at 2). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated June 24, 2016, became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). The Court conducted oral argument on October 26, 2017. (Doc. 16). 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 substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC assessment for a full range of work at all exertional levels with the stated non-exertional limitations?

         2. Whether the ALJ erred in assigning little weight to the opinion of treating nurse practitioner, Dolores Bray, CRNP, while assigning great weight to the opinion of non-examining State Agency psychologist, Joanna Koulianos, Ph.D.?

         3. Whether the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider the VA's 70% disability rating for PTSD?

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on September 10, 1978, and was thirty-seven years of age at the time of his second administrative hearing on February 7, 2016. (Doc. 7-2 at 42). Plaintiff graduated from high school and attended three years of college. (Doc. 7-2 at 42-43). Plaintiff also served in the military from 2002 to 2005 and worked as a special electronic device technician for the Army. (Doc. 7-2 at 45; Doc. 7-6 at 85). After leaving the Army, Plaintiff worked in 2006 as a subcontractor for the Corps of Engineers[4] and from 2008 to 2012 as an office furniture installer. (Doc. 7-2 at 43-45; Doc. 7-6 at 85-86).

         At the time of his hearing, Plaintiff testified that he was actively searching for work, sending out his resume, and filling out job applications in multiple places. Plaintiff testified that, “[a]nything right now that I could find would be great.” (Doc. 7-2 at 46-47). Plaintiff also testified, however, that if he found a job, he would have trouble keeping it because he does not sleep well at night, averaging approximately four hours of sleep a night, [5] and because he has intermittent problems with his left knee caused by a minor cartilage tear. (Doc. 7-2 at 47-48, 51-52). Plaintiff testified that his knee hurts after prolonged standing and walking. (Doc. 7-2 at 51).

         Plaintiff testified that he is divorced and lives alone. (Doc. 7-2 at 46). On a normal day, Plaintiff wakes up very early and goes for a walk or jog to get exercise, gets on the computer and checks his emails, [6] and does work or odd jobs for friends, such as installing office furniture.[7] (Doc. 7-2 at 52-53). He goes to church once a month and on holidays. (Doc. 7-2 at 54). Plaintiff does his own cleaning, including bathrooms, sweeping, vacuuming, and laundry. (Doc. 7-2 at 55). In a Function Report dated May 25, 2015, Plaintiff reported that he takes care of his own personal care needs; he cooks, mows the yard, cleans house, does laundry, drives, goes out every day, shops, handles his own finances, and enjoys reading. (Doc. 7-6 at 33-36). He also reported that he does not handle stress or changes in routine well. (Doc. 7-6 at 38).

         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.[8] 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 ...

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