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Belton v. Berryhill

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

March 9, 2018

DONNA MICHELLE BELTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

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

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Belton applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on May 26, 2015 and January 15, 2016, respectively. (Doc. 6-3, p. 27; Doc. 6-4, p. 2). Ms. Belton alleges that her disability began February 18, 2015. (Doc. 6-6, p. 2). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Belton's claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 27, 2015. (Doc. 6-5, p. 3). Ms. Belton requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Id., p. 12).[1] The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Ms. Belton's applications on August 9, 2016. (Doc. 6-3, p. 24). On October 21, 2016, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Belton's request for review (Doc. 6-3, pp. 2-6), making the Commissioner's decision final and a proper candidate for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) & 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. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing 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. Belton has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 18, 2015. (Doc. 6-3, p. 29). The ALJ determined that Ms. Belton suffers from the following severe impairments: hypertension, hypothyroidism, obesity, degenerative disc disease with small extrusion at ¶ 5-S1, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, and IQ scores in the intellectually disabled range. (Id.). The ALJ also determined that Ms. Belton has non-severe impairments of palpitations and arrhythmia. (Id., p. 31). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Belton 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. (Id.).

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

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except there would be an environmental limitation due to symptoms of dizziness and vertigo in that any such job should not be performed from elevated platforms or workstations, nor in close proximity to moving machine parts which would be hazardous to an employee if she became dizzy and fell into the same. Any such job should be simple and routine in nature. Contact with the public should be casual. Changes in the work setting should be infrequent and introduced gradually and well explained. The job should not require a specific production quota.

(Doc. 6-3, p. 35).

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Belton is not able to perform her past relevant work as a janitor, laborer, certified nursing assistant (“CNA”), salad maker, or steam table attendant. (Id., pp. 38-39). Relying on the testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Belton can perform, including spotter and sorter. (Id., pp. 39-40). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Belton has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id., p. 40).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Belton argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because (1) the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the opinion of Dr. John Goff, Ms. Belton's consultative examining source, and significant weight to the opinions of Dr. Jerry Hart, the DDS's consultative examining source; (2) the ALJ erred by finding that Ms. Belton is not disabled under Listing 12.05(C) for intellectual disability; (3) the ALJ erred by finding Ms. Belton's combination of impairments is not disabling; and (4) the Appeals Council erred by denying review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 11, p. 3). The Court considers these arguments in turn.

         A. The ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence.

         Ms. Belton contends that the ALJ erred by giving the opinions of Dr. Jerry Hart, a consultative examining source, significant weight while giving little weight to the opinions of Dr. John Goff, another consultative examining source. (Doc. 11, p. 13). The Court disagrees.

         An ALJ must consider every medical opinion in the administrative record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c) (stating that “[r]egardless of its source, we will evaluate every medical opinion we receive”). Additionally, “‘the ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons therefor.'” Gaskin v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 931 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179). Otherwise, the Court “cannot determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.” Denomme v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec., 518 Fed.Appx. 875, 877 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1179).

         The ALJ need not defer to the opinions of a one-time examining source. Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1160 (holding that, in general, the opinion of a one-time examining physician is “not entitled to great weight”) (citing McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619 (11th Cir. 1987)); Eyre v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 586 Fed.Appx. 521, 523 (11th Cir. 2014) (“The ALJ owes no deference to the opinion of a physician who conducted a single examination . . . .”). Additionally, “[t]he ALJ may reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion.” McCloud v. Barnhart, 166 Fed.Appx. 410, 418-19 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         1. Dr. Hart's Opinion

         For purposes of Ms. Belton's disability evaluation, Dr. Hart, a clinical psychologist, examined Ms. Belton on August 7, 2015. (Doc. 6-9, p. 71). Dr. Hart reviewed some of Ms. Belton's medical records, made behavioral observations, and conducted a mental status exam. (Id., pp. 71-74).

         Dr. Hart observed that Ms. Belton was “alert, attentive, and fully oriented” during the examination. (Doc. 6-9, p. 71). However, Dr. Hart noted that Ms. Belton presented her work history and medical information in a “confused fashion.” (Id.). As the ALJ noted, Ms. Belton reported to Dr. Hart that she could not work because of back problems, knee problems, heart problems, and episodes in which she would “blank out” for a minute. (Doc. 6-3, p. 30; compare Doc. 6-9, p. 71). Ms. Belton also reported that she attended special education classes in school and received a certificate rather than a diploma from high school. (Doc. 6-9, p. 72). After high school, Ms. Belton earned a “CNA diploma, ” but she did not get her CNA certification “due to lack of money ...


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