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Culwell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

March 9, 2018

CHRISTY CULWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Christy Culwell seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Culwell's claims for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.[1]

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Culwell filed for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on November 14, 2012. (Doc. 8-4, p. 2). Ms. Culwell alleges that her disability began July 22, 2012. (Doc. 8-4, p. 2; Doc. 8-6, pp. 2, 6). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Culwell's claims on January 8, 2013. (Doc. 8-5, pp. 4-8). Ms. Culwell requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 8-5, pp. 2-3). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 13, 2014. (Doc. 8-4, pp. 32-49). On May 10, 2016, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Culwell's request for review (Doc. 8-3, pp. 2-4), making the Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S DECISION

         To determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Culwell has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 22, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 8-4, p. 37). The ALJ determined that Ms. Culwell suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with disc herniation at ¶ 5, syringomyelia at ¶ 6, fibromyalgia, depression/mood disorder, and anxiety/panic disorder. (Doc. 8-4, p. 37). The ALJ found that Ms. Culwell also has the following non-severe impairments: irritable bowel syndrome; gastroesophageal reflux disease; and osteoarthritis. (Doc. 8-4, p. 38). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Culwell does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 8-4, p. 40).

         In light of Ms. Culwell's impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Culwell's residual functional capacity or RFC. The ALJ determined that Ms. Culwell has the RFC to perform:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that she is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; cannot tolerate any exposure to hazardous, moving machinery or unprotected heights; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; requires a temperature-controlled work environment with no more than occasional exposure to extreme cold or heat; is limited to work that requires no more than the understanding, remembering, and carrying out of simple instructions and has the ability to sustain such activities for two hours at a time over an eight-hour day with no more than the morning, afternoon, and lunch-time breaks routinely allowed in the workplace; and can tolerate frequent changes to the work setting but only occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors.

(Doc. 8-4, p. 42).

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Culwell is not able to perform her past relevant work as a maintenance supervisor. (Doc. 8-4, p. 48).

         Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Culwell can perform, including bakery worker, assembler, and marker. (Doc. 8-4, pp. 48-49). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Culwell has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 8-4, p. 49).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Culwell argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion of treating physician Dr. John Keithan; the ALJ failed to re-contact Quality of Life to confirm the name and title of the examiner who conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Ms. Culwell on November 18, 2013; and the ALJ did not assess Ms. Culwell's subjective complaints of pain consistent with Social Security Ruling 16-3p. (Doc. 13). In addition, Ms. Culwell asks the Court to remand pursuant to sentence six to require the ALJ to consider a psychological evaluation that Dr. David Wilson completed on July 18, 2016. (Doc. 12). The Court considers these arguments in turn.

         A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Decision to Give Dr. Keithan's Opinions Little Weight.

         An ALJ must give the opinion of a treating physician like Dr. Keithan “substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause' is shown to the contrary.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Good cause exists when “(1) [the] treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) [the] evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) [the] treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records.” Id. at 1240-41; see also Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1159 (noting a treating physician's report may be discounted if it is wholly conclusory or not supported by objective medical evidence). “The ALJ must clearly articulate the reasons for giving less weight to a treating physician's opinion, and the failure to do so constitutes error.” Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 931 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.2d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         On June 13, 2014, Dr. Keithan completed on Ms. Culwell's behalf a physical capacities evaluation, a clinical assessment of pain form, and an ability to work form. (Doc. 8-11, pp. 2-4). In the physical capacities assessment, Dr. Keithan opined that Ms. Culwell can sit, stand, and walk for a total of one hour in an 8-hour work day. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Dr. Keithan opined that Ms. Culwell occasionally can lift up to 25 pounds, and she never can lift more than 25 pounds. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). According to Dr. Keithan, Ms. Culwell occasionally can carry up to 10 pounds, and she never can carry more than 10 pounds. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Ms. Culwell occasionally can use her hands for simple grasping, pulling, and fine manipulation. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Ms. Culwell occasionally can use her right foot and frequently can use her left foot for pushing and pulling of leg controls. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Dr. Keithan concluded that Ms. Culwell occasionally can stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, climb, balance, and reach overhead, and she occasionally can work around unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, marked changes in temperature, and exposure to dust and fumes. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). Ms. Culwell also occasionally can drive auto equipment. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2). According to Dr. Keithan, Ms. Culwell likely would miss more than four days of work per month because of her impairments or treatment. (Doc. 8-11, p. 2).

         In a clinical assessment of pain form, Dr. Keithan circled pre-marked answers on a questionnaire indicating that Ms. Culwell's pain “is present to such an extent as to be distracting to adequate performance of daily activities, ” and that physical activity will increase Ms. Culwell's pain “to such an extent that bed rest and/or medication is necessary.” (Doc. 8-11, p. 3). Dr. Keithan also noted that side effects from Ms. Culwell's ...


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