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Harper v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Stanley Dale Harper 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 him supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. (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. 8). 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 filed his current SSI application in March 2012, alleging he became disabled beginning March 5, 2012. It was initially denied by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The Appeals Council (“AC”) remanded the case for a further hearing concerning Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and the need for additional rationale concerning the assessed limitations. The AC also ordered the ALJ to obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Plaintiff's occupational base. (R.[2] 18, 35-36). A hearing was held on September 10, 2015 (id.) and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 28, 2015, finding Plaintiff was not entitled to SSI benefits. (R. 15, 18-27). The AC denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1).

         II. FACTS

         Plaintiff was 48 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision that is under review. (R. 36). He completed the second grade and last worked as a truck driver in 2000 or 2001. Since then he has been assisted by his family. Plaintiff alleges a disability onset date of March 5, 2012. (R. 18).

         Following his hearing, the ALJ, applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: Hepatitis B and C, bipolar disorder, polysubstance abuse in remission, personality disorder, panic disorder, lumbar degenerative disc disease, and osteoarthritis. (R. 20). She 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. (Id.) She further found Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work, with various postural limitations and no exposure to hazards. (R. 22). The ALJ then found, based on testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. He could, however, perform other work, including work as a marker, a garment sorter, or a surveillance system monitor, that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 27). Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)


         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); Mitchell v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2015; 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). The court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if other evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. See Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir.1990)).


         To qualify for benefits 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). 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).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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).[3] 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); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a). 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 asserts that the ALJ erred in three ways: (1) she improperly evaluated the opinion evidence of Dr. June Nichols; (2) she improperly evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints of disabling symptoms; and (3) she failed to find Plaintiff to be illiterate. (Doc. 14 at 12-17). Each will be addressed below.

         A. Dr. Nichols's Opinion

         Plaintiff initially argues that the ALJ improperly found that Dr. Nichols's opinion that Plaintiff's anxiety and panic attacks would markedly interfere with his ability to concentrate is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 14 at 12). The Commissioner responds that the ALJ correctly assessed Dr. Nichols's opinion in evaluating Plaintiff's RFC. (Doc. 17 at 5).

         Dr. Nichols evaluated Plaintiff in August 2015. She found that his stream of consciousness was clear; he was oriented to person, place, time, and situation; he had poor mental processing; he was able to perform simple addition and subtraction using his fingers; his recent and remote memory were “grossly intact”; his intermediate memory was fair; his general fund of knowledge was adequate; his thinking was “somewhat abstract” in nature; and his thought processes were within normal limits. (R. 603-04). Dr. Nichols estimated that Plaintiff was functioning in the borderline range of intellectual ability. (R. 604). She diagnosed Plaintiff with bipolar disorder, panic disorder, polysubstance abuse in remission, alcohol abuse in remission, and borderline intelligence. She stated that Plaintiff's “symptoms cause[d] his ability to relate interpersonally and to withstand the pressures of everyday work to be compromised.” (R. 24, 605). She also stated that “his deficits would interfere with his ability to remember, understand, and carry out work-related instructions.” (Id.) She further stated that “anxiety and panic attacks would markedly interfere with [his] concentration, persistence, and pace.” (Id.) Finally, she concluded that Plaintiff is unable to handle his own funds, but he can live independently with family support. (Id.)

Assessing Dr. Nichols's opinions, the ALJ stated:
Similar to the claimant's physical impairments, the undersigned does not question the existence of the claimant's mental impairments. The claimant has valid diagnoses of personality disorder, panic disorder, and substance abuse issues that are in remission. As discussed earlier in this decision, the claimant's symptoms are well controlled on medications, and as long as he is compliant with his medications, he has no complaints.... The undersigned gives substantial weight to Dr. Nichols' opinions regarding the claimant's impairments as they are the most restrictive within the record. She opined that the claimant's ability to relate interpersonally is compromised and suggested that the claimant's ability to interact appropriately with the public, with supervisors, and with coworkers is moderately impaired. The undersigned has accounted for this opinion within the current residual functional capacity and has limited the claimant to only occasional interaction with the public, with coworkers, and with supervisors. Dr. Nichols further opined that the claimant would have mild interference with his ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. Complex instructions would create moderate limitations for the claimant. Therefore, the undersigned finds that the claimant can understand, remember, and carry out short, simple instructions. The claimant can concentrate for two-hour long periods. He demonstrated his abilities to concentrate while completing tasks and answering questions during his evaluation. Dr. Nichols opined that the claimant's anxiety and panic attacks would markedly interfere with the claimant's ability to concentrate; however, it has already been established that the claimant's symptoms are well controlled when he is compliant with his medications. Based on the entire evaluation and on the available evidence, Dr. Nichols opined that the claimant would be moderately limited in his ability to respond appropriately to usual work situations and to changes in a routine work setting. The undersigned agrees with this finding as well and finds that changes in the claimant's work environment should be introduced gradually and should occur no more than occasionally....

(R. 25-26 (record citations omitted and italics added)). The ALJ further stated, “As for the opinion evidence, as stated earlier, substantial weight is given to the opinions of Dr. Nichols as they are supported by the record and because they are the most limiting.” (R. 26).

         20 C.F.R. § 416.927 provides the SSA with guidelines for evaluating opinion evidence. “The regulation provides that the SSA will consider ‘the following factors in deciding the weight [it] give[s] to any medical opinion': examining relationship, treatment relationship, supportability, consistency with the record as a whole, specialization, and other factors, including the medical professional's understanding of the SSA's disability programs.” Snow v. Colvin, 8 F.Supp.3d 1345, 1353 (N.D. Ala. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)). Section 416.927(c) further provides that “an ‘ALJ may reject the opinion of any physician when the evidence supports a contrary conclusion' so long as the ALJ ‘state[s] with particularity the weight he gives to different medical opinions and the reasons why.' ” Snow, 8 F.Supp.3d at 1353 (quoting McCloud v. Barnhart, 166 F. App'x. 410, 418 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1240 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         As noted above, the ALJ gave substantial weight to Dr. Nichols's opinion concerning Plaintiff's mental impairments. However, the ALJ gave little weight to her opinion that Plaintiff's anxiety and panic attacks would markedly interfere with his ability to concentrate. (R. 25-26). The court ...

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