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Champion v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Sherry S. Champion (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and 1381, et seq. On October 5, 2017, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 17). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History[2]

         Plaintiff filed her application for benefits on August 19, 2013, alleging disability beginning July 12, 2013, based on “restless leg syndrome, plate in right arm, rods in left arm, [and] major depression.” (Doc. 12-5 at 2, 6; Doc. 12-6 at 2, 6). Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Renee Blackmon Hagler (hereinafter “ALJ”) on February 18, 2015. (Doc. 12-2 at 34). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Id.). A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Doc. 12-2 at 57). On May 21, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 16). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 1, 2016. (Id. at 2). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated May 21, 2015, became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was conducted on October 25, 2017 (Doc. 20), and the parties agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. Issues on Appeal

1.Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assignment of little weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician?
2.Whether substantial evidence supports the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”)?

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on September 12, 1967, and was forty-seven years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on February 18, 2015. (Doc. 12-2 at 38). Plaintiff graduated from high school and attended two years of college, after which she obtained a certificate for completing computer training. (Id. at 39).

         Plaintiff last worked in July 2013 as a waitress at Ezell's Fish Camp and, prior to that, in 2012, she worked as a waitress at Old Mexico. (Doc. 12-2 at 40; Doc. 12-6 at 20). From 2010 to 2011, Plaintiff worked at the Clarke County Jail as a cafeteria worker. (Doc. 12-2 at 40; Doc. 12-6 at 20). From 2009 to 2010, she worked as an Assistant Manager at Dollar General, during which time her duties included unloading trucks and stocking shelves. (Doc. 12-2 at 40; Doc. 12-6 at 20). Prior to that, Plaintiff worked as the Night Manager for Old School Truck Stop, during which time her duties included sweeping, mopping, and cleaning the bathrooms, as well as supervising other employees. (Doc. 12-2 at 41). She also worked as a Department Manager for Fred Stores and as a Customer Service Manager for Walmart. (Doc. 12-2 at 41).

         Plaintiff testified that she can no longer work due to problems with her back and legs which prevent her from working positions involving heavy lifting and a lot of standing. (Doc. 12-2 at 42-43). Plaintiff further testified that her depression also prevents her from working. (Id. at 43). Plaintiff's medical treatments, consisting primarily of injections in her back and neck and medications, have provided her some relief. (Doc. 12-2 at 44).

         IV. Standard of Review

         In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied.[3] Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance” and consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable, as well as unfavorable, to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).

         V. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

          An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant has proven his disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The claimant must first prove that he or she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity. The second step requires the claimant to prove that he or she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. If, at the third step, the claimant proves that the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience. If the claimant cannot prevail at the third step, he or she must proceed to the fourth step where the claimant must prove an inability to perform their past relevant work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986). At the fourth step, the ALJ must make an assessment of the claimant's RFC. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (llth Cir. 2004). The RFC is an assessment, based on all relevant medical and other evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to work despite his impairment. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (llth Cir. 1997).

         If a claimant meets his or her burden at the fourth step, it then becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove at the fifth step that the claimant is capable of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment which exists in significant numbers in the national economy, given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work history. Sryock v. Heckler,764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). If the Commissioner can demonstrate that there are such jobs the claimant can perform, the claimant must prove inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 ...

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