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Wilkerson v. Berryhill

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

March 16, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Charles Wilkerson, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner")[1] denying his application for disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Mr. Wilkerson timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c). Accordingly, the court enters this Memorandum Opinion.

         Mr. Wilkerson was 50 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision, and he has an eighth-grade education.[2] (Tr. at 178, 232). His past work experiences include work as a truck driver, upholsterer, forklift operator, and floor sander. (Tr. at 204-05). Mr. Wilkerson claims that he became disabled on July 12, 2012, due to degenerative disc disease, diabetes, and lower back pain. (Tr. at 350).

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 4l6.920(a)(4)(i). If he is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. l520(a)(4)(ii), 4l6.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. l520(a)(4)(iii), 4l6.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, he will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If he does not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment based on all relevant evidence of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 4l6.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. l520(a)(4)(v), 4l6.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform is on the Commissioner; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Wilkerson has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the July 12, 2012, date of onset through the date of his decision on July 11, 2014. (Tr. at 238). He determined that Mr. Wilkerson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his disability. (Tr. at 232). According to the ALJ, Mr. Wilkerson's degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, chronic headaches, and diabetes mellitus (Type II) may be considered "severe" based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 232-34). The ALJ further determined that Mr. Wilkerson has non-severe impairments of adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression and degenerative joint disease of the right knee. He found that none of the impairments meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 234). In addition, the ALJ did not find Mr. Wilkerson's allegations of pain and the limitations caused by his impairments to be entirely credible. (Tr. at 235). He determined that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work. (Tr. at 234).

         According to the ALJ, Mr. Wilkerson is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he was a "younger individual" at the date of alleged onset, he has a limited education, and he is able to communicate in English. (Tr. at 236-37). The ALJ determined that "transferability of skills is not material to the determination of disability" in this case. (Tr. at 237). The ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Mr. Wilkerson is capable of performing. (Tr. at 237). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Mr. Wilkerson is "not disabled" under the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 238).

         II. Standard of Review

         This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir 2002). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. "The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and 'the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'" Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the Court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for "despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached." Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. Discussion

         Mr. Wilkerson alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because, he asserts, of the following: (1) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of treating physician Dr. Poczatek; (2) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of consulting physician Dr. Estock; (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated the plaintiffs credibility without retroactively employing Ruling 16-3p; (4) the ALJ's finding that the claimant had the RFC to perform light work was not based on substantial evidence; (5) the ALJ failed to consider the claimant's tremors/spasticity as a severe impairment; (6) the Appeals Council improperly failed to review medical records submitted after the ALJ's decision solely based on the date of the records, without considering whether they were chronologically relevant to the ALJ's determination; and (7) the denial, when considering the evidence presented to the Appeals Council, was not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 14). The Commissioner has responded by addressing these claims in five categories: (1) the Appeals Council's review of the evidence; (2) the ALJ's treatment of treating and consultative physician opinions; (3) the ALJ's consideration of the plaintiffs subjective complaints as not entirely credible; (4) the ALJ's finding as to the plaintiffs RFC; and (5) the ALJ's evaluation of the severity of plaintiffs tremors/spasticity. (Doc. 15). The court addresses the claims in two broad categories of the ALJ's decision and the Appeals Council's findings, analyzing the plaintiffs more specific allegations within the discussions of each category.

         A. The ALJ's Determinations

         1. Treating Physician and Medical Source Assessments

         Under prevailing law, a treating physician's testimony is entitled to "substantial or considerable weight unless 'good cause' is shown to the contrary." Crawford v. Commissioner of Social Security, 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotations omitted). The weight to be afforded a medical opinion regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments depends, among other things, upon the examining and treating relationship the medical source had with the claimant, the evidence the medical source presents to support the opinion, how consistent the opinion is with the record as a whole, and the specialty of the medical source. See 20 C.RR. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). "Good cause" exists for an ALJ not to give a treating physician's opinion substantial weight when the "(1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) . . . was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records." Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1241 (11th Cir. 2004) citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440; see also Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 583-84 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding that "good cause" exists where the opinion was contradicted by other notations in the physician's own record).

         Opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors "are not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner;" thus the court "may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Dyer v. Barnhart,395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). The court instead looks to the doctors' evaluations of the claimant's condition and the medical consequences thereof, not their opinions of the legal consequences of his [or her] condition." Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440. See also 20 C.F.R. ยง 404. l527(d)(1)("A statement by a medical source that you are 'disabled' or 'unable to work' does not mean that we will determine that you are disabled."). Such statements by a physician are relevant to the ALJ's ...

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