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Locke v. Berryhill

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

July 24, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Angela Dawn Locke (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) to deny his claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). See 42 U.S.C. §§405(g) and 1383(c). Based on the court's review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.

         I. Proceedings Below

         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on January 18, 2015 and SSI on March 31, 2015, alleging that her disability began on May 16, 2014. (Tr. 46, 101). The claim was initially denied on March 25, 2015. (Tr. 46, 111). Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing on April 7, 2015. (Tr. 46, 121). On April 7, 2016, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Amy H. Naylor held a video hearing. (Tr. 46, 145-49). On May 23, 2016, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A). (Tr. 46, 58).

         On June 5, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ decision. (Tr. 23-27). Following that denial, the final decision of the Commissioner became a proper subject of this court's appellate review. See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986) (finding the ALJ decision final for purposes of judicial review when the Appeals Council denied review).

         Plaintiff Angela Locke was 39 years old at the time of her hearing and also when the ALJ's decision was rendered. (Tr. 46, 202). Plaintiff alleges her work-related medical conditions began with pain in her right wrist diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome in 2009. (Tr. 53, 274). She continued to work despite her wrist pain, completed her GED in 2011, and held several sales associate and cashier positions from May 2011 to May 2014. (Tr. 206). During that time period, Plaintiff was examined at Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center on two occasions. (Tr. 406-25). She first visited in January 2012 for back pain after she fell up the stairs at her house. (Tr. 406-08). Her second visit was in September 2012 for chest pain resulting from dehydration and low potassium levels. (Tr. 414, 421). She was treated, given a prescription, and released on the same day. (Tr. 422-25).

         In May 2014, Plaintiff stopped working. (Tr. 69, 467). She alleges that she left her job because of her back pain and anxiety, yet she reported to at least one doctor that she was “let go.” (Id.). She asserts that the onset of her disabilities began on May 16, 2014. (Tr. 46, 101). On May 28, 2014, almost two weeks after the alleged onset, Plaintiff was examined at St. Vincent's Family Care in Pell City. (Tr. 431). She reported feeling well with only minor complaints but was prescribed medication for her chronic back pain, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 431, 433).

         In March 2015, Plaintiff was seen by two consulting examiners. On March 9, 2015, Dr. Morton Rickless examined her and noted her complaints of back pain, depression and anxiety, and headaches with some question of hypoglycemia. (Tr. 470). However, Dr. Rickless determined that she was in no acute distress, had no significant physical limitations, and scheduled her for a psychological examination. (Tr. 467, 471). On March 25, 2015, Dr. Robert Summerlin performed a psychological exam and noted that Plaintiff performed some activities such as light housework, simple cooking, talking on the phone, watching television, and interacting on Facebook. (Tr. 55-56, 479-82). Dr. Summerlin diagnosed Plaintiff with adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, chronic. (Tr. 482). During the evaluation, Plaintiff stated that she could not go back to work because of her panic issues. (Tr. 479). However, Dr. Summerlin opined that Plaintiff “does not have a psychological disorder which would cause her to be unemployable; nonetheless, I do believe that she has anger issues….” (Tr. 482).

         Plaintiff was examined at Talladega Primary & Urgent Care Center on six occasions throughout 2015 and into 2016. (Tr. 483-504). During those visits, the examining physicians noted her anxiety and back pain. (Tr. 483-504). Concurrently, Plaintiff was being seen by Dr. Jorge Castro for psychiatric examinations at Highland Health Systems. (Tr. 505-28). During those visits, Plaintiff reported that having to care for her boyfriend's children was a stressor. (Tr. 510, 516). The reports from those visits indicate that the medications were sometimes effective but at other times required adjustment. (Tr. 505-528). Finally, on March 30, 2016, Plaintiff was evaluated by D'Angelo Smith, a therapist working under Dr. Castro. (Tr. 529-31). Smith concluded that Plaintiff had moderate to severe impairments and was unable to return to work. (Tr. 529-31).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         The Act uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine a claimant's disability. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(b) and 416.920(b). Substantial gainful activity is work done for pay or profit that requires significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. §404.1572(a-b) and 416.972(a-b). If the claimant has employment earnings above a certain threshold, the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity is generally presumed. 20 C.F.R. §404.1574, 404.1575, 416.974, and 416.975. If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability, regardless of a medical condition or age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §414.1520(b) and 416.920(b).

         Second the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically-determinable impairment that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §404.1420(c) and 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or functionally equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. §404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If the criteria for impairment is met or functionally equal, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the impairment does not meet the criteria or is not functionally equivalent, the ALJ will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform, given their impairment, in a work setting. 20 C.F.R. §§404.15245(a)(1) and 416.920(a)(1). The RFC is based on medical and other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The ALJ makes an assessment about a claimant's RFC using a two-step process that determines: (1) whether there is an underlying medically-determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the claimant's pain; and (2) the extent to which the claimant's symptoms would limit claimant's functioning. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1545(e) and 416.920(e). To determine the limiting effect of the claimant's impairment, the ALJ must consider the credibility of the claimant's statements about their pain in the context of the record. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1529(c)(3) and 416.920(c)(3).

         Once the ALJ has determined Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ will consider in step four whether the claimant has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§414.1520(f) and 416.920(f). If the claimant is found capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. If the claimant is unable to perform past relevant work or has no past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(v) and 416.920(a)(4)(v). In the fifth step, the ALJ will determine whether the claimant is able to perform any other work in the national economy that is commensurate with their RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(g). Although the claimant must still prove disability, at this point the burden of production shifts from the claimant to the ALJ. The ...

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