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Williams v. Berryhill

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

March 9, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          JOHN E. OTT Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Shenandoah Williams brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1).[1] The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. (See Doc. 17). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         Plaintiff protectively filed his current DIB and SSI applications on July 18, 2013, alleging he became disabled beginning November 7, 2012. (R. 11). They were initially denied. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a video hearing on March 3, 2015 (R. 11) and issued an unfavorable decision on May 20, 2015 (R. 11-22). Plaintiff submitted his appeal to the Appeals Council. Upon consideration, the Appeals Council found no reason to review the ALJ's decision. (R. 1). Plaintiff's request for review was denied on May 9, 2016. (R. 1).

         II. FACTS

         Plaintiff was 50 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. He has a tenth grade education and has worked in the past as a truck driver, forklift operator, plating equipment tender, and concrete mixing truck driver. (R. 37, 176, 181). Plaintiff alleged onset of disability due to gout, high blood pressure, obesity, anxiety, arthritis, and diabetes mellitus. (R. 46, 175, 200).

         Following a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: morbid obesity, dyspnea, gout, estimated borderline to low average intellectual functioning, and depressive disorder. (R. 13). He also found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (R. 14). He further found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) that did not require: (1) climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; (2) work at unprotected heights or with hazardous machinery; (3) concentrated exposure to temperature extremes; (4) more than frequent interaction with co-workers and supervisors; and (5) more than occasional contact with the public. (R. 57). Based on that RFC finding and testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a truck driver, forklift operator, plating attendant tender, or concrete mixing truck driver. (R. 20). However, based on his age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as a sorter and final sorter. (R. 21). Accordingly, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since November 7, 2012, through the date of his decision. (R. 22).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To qualify for DIB and SSI under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show 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); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 F. App'x 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014)[2] (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)). The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). The applicable “regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Id.

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues five grounds of error: First, the ALJ failed to state with “some measure of clarity” his reason for “repudiating the opinion of Dr. David Wilson”; Second, the ALJ failed to state adequate reasons for finding Plaintiff not credible; Third, the ALJ failed to give proper consideration to Plaintiff's obesity; Fourth, the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence; and Fifth, the ALJ failed to assess the intensity and persistence of Plaintiff's symptoms pursuant to SSR 16-3p. (Doc. 13 at 3). Each argument will be addressed below.

         A. Dr. David Wilson

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to clearly state his reasons for repudiating the opinion of consultative psychological examiner Dr. Wilson. (Id. (Issue 1)). The Commissioner responds that the ALJ fully evaluated and properly weighed Dr. Wilson's opinion. (Doc. 14 at 6). The court agrees with the Commissioner.

         Dr. Wilson examined Plaintiff one time on September 25, 2013. He diagnosed Plaintiff as suffering from depressive disorder, gout, hypertension, and morbid obesity. He also stated that Plaintiff's gout “could possibly make him unable to maintain a job. He has cognitive deficits and he is only capable of doing some type of manual labor job - and his gout and morbid obesity could make those jobs very difficult. He is also very depressed and this will also make it very difficult for him to work.” (R. 372). Dr. Wilson also assessed Plaintiff “as having a GAF of 50, indicating psychological symptomology and mental functional limitations of disabling proportions.” (R. 18).

         When evaluating a disability claim, it is well settled that an ALJ is “required to state with particularity the weight he gave the different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.” Sarfaz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987). The opinion of a one-time examiner, i.e., non-treating doctors, is not entitled to deference or special consideration. See Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1160 (11th Cir. 2004) (stating that the opinion of a doctor who examines a claimant on only one occasion is not entitled to great weight). In assessing Dr. Wilson's opinions, the ALJ stated: (1) “the underlying findings of medical and non-medical evidence are found to be more relevant in determining the claimant's residual functional capacity than a GAF score, which lacks reliability in disability determinations”; (2) “[i]n terms of [Plaintiff's] borderline intellectual functioning, the record contains no evidence of a significant deficit in adaptive functioning”; (3) the determination of whether Plaintiff is disabled is reserved for the Commissioner; and (4) Dr. Wilson's opinions are inconsistent with the remainder of the record. (R. 19-20). The court finds that the ALJ properly weighed Dr. Wilson's opinions.

         With regard to the GAF score, “The Commissioner [has] ... declined to endorse the GAF scale for use in the Social Security and SSI disability programs, and ... [has] indicated that GAF scores have no direct correlation to the severity requirements of the mental disorders listings.” Wind v. Barnhart, 133 F. App'x 684, 692 n.5 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotations omitted) (citing 60 Fed. Reg. 50746, 50764-65 (Aug. 21, 2000)). While a GAF score distills an individual's symptoms and functioning to a single number, an ALJ assessing a claimant's RFC must consider the claimant's “‘functional limitations or restrictions and assess ... [his] work-related abilities on a function by function basis.'” Freeman v. Barnhart, 220 F. App'x 957, 959 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184). The court also notes that the latest edition of the Manual of Mental Disorders has abandoned the GAF scale because of “its conceptual lack of clarity ... and questionable psychometrics in routine practice.” Diagnostic and Statistical ...

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