United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
ANDREW B. EARHEART, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL,  Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
F. BIVINS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
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).
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. (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
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).
Issues on Appeal
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?
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.?
Whether the ALJ erred by failing to properly consider the
VA's 70% disability rating for PTSD?
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 and from 2008 to 2012 as an office
furniture installer. (Doc. 7-2 at 43-45; Doc. 7-6 at 85-86).
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,  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).
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,  and does work or odd jobs for friends,
such as installing office furniture. (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).
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 ...