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Corley v. Berryhill

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

March 23, 2018

SUSAN CORLEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Susan Corley, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner[1]of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Corley timely pursued and exhausted her 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). (Doc. 18).

         Ms. Corley was 52 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision, [2] and she has a high school education. (Tr. at 21). Her past work experiences include employment as a receptionist, administrative assistant/secretary, bookkeeper, purchasing clerk, and payroll clerk. (Tr. at 20-21). Ms. Corley claims that she became disabled on January 15, 2010, due to bipolar disorder with rapid cycling, anxiety, depression, diverticulitis, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), gastroesophageal reflux disorder (“GERD”), hidradenitis suppurativa, [3] folliculitis, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (“MRSA”). (Tr. at 226).

         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), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(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), 416.920(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. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do 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 her impairments. 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do her 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 she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. '' 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(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 her 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 Ms. Corley has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of his decision. (Tr. at 22). He determined that Ms. Corley has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of her disability. (Tr. at 13). According to the ALJ, the plaintiff's bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, and degenerative joint disease of the knees are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 14). He further determined that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 14). The ALJ did not find Ms. Corley's allegations regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms to be entirely credible. (Tr. at 17). He determined that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) with the following limitations: she will have occasional difficulty remembering multi-step and complex instructions but no difficulty with simple work procedures; she will have problems carrying out detailed and complex instructions but no difficulty carrying out simple instructions; she will require breaks every two to four hours during a workday; her contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public should be casual, infrequent, non-intensive, and not prolonged; she can accept supportive feedback; she will require assistance with long-term planning but should have no difficulty with daily work routines. (Tr. at 16).

         According to the ALJ, Ms. Corley is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. at 20). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date through the date last insured. (Tr. at 22).

         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

         Ms. Corley alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because the ALJ: (1) failed to properly apply Social Security Ruling 96-7p[4] in evaluating the credibility of the Plaintiff's allegations regarding her limitations, and (2) failed to assign proper weight to the opinions of the Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Fred Habeeb, Jr. (Doc. 14). The Commissioner has asserted that the ALJ followed the controlling law in evaluating the credibility of the plaintiff's description of her limitations and symptoms, and that he properly weighed Dr. Habeeb's opinions in accordance with the governing standards. (Doc. 16).

         A. Assessment of Credibility

         The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an ALJ must “clearly ‘articulate explicit and adequate reasons' for discrediting the claimant's allegations of completely disabling symptoms.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (2005) (quoting Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561-62 (11th Cir. 1995). A credibility determination is not permitted to be a “broad rejection” that would demonstrate to the court that the ALJ did not consider the claimant's medical condition as a whole. Dyer, 395 at 1211 (quoting Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561). An ALJ has “wide latitude as a finder of fact” to evaluate credibility, but that evaluation must rest on a “clear articulation” of the relevant facts and the governing law. See Owens v. Heckler, Admin., Comm'r, No. 17-11683, 2018 WL 1061567 (11th Cir. Feb. 27, 2018) (holding that the rule “applies only prospectively and does not provide a basis for remand”). Accordingly, the court evaluates the ALJ's assessment in light of SSR 96-7p. 748 F.2d 1511, 1514 (11th Cir. 1984). Pursuant to Social Security Ruling 96-7p, the ALJ has a duty to consider the claimant's explanations for her lack of medical treatment or her noncompliance with medical advice, without prejudging her. It has been established that an “ALJ's discretionary power to determine the credibility of testimony is limited by his obligation to place on the record explicit and adequate reasons for ...

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