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Chi v. Berryhill

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

August 9, 2018

DONNA MARIE CHI, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Claimant, Donna Chi, commenced this action on September 15, 2017, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner, affirming the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and thereby denying her claim for supplemental security income benefits.

         The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Tieniber v. Heckler, 720 F.2d 1251, 1253 (11th Cir. 1983).

         Claimant contends that the Commissioner's decision is neither supported by substantial evidence nor in accordance with applicable legal standards. Specifically, claimant asserts that the ALJ: (1) failed to correctly assess the intensity and persistence of her symptoms pursuant to Social Security Ruling 16-3p; (2) failed to properly consider her obesity; and (3) rendered a decision that was not based upon substantial evidence. She also asserts that the Appeals Council failed to appropriately consider new evidence. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that these contentions are without merit, and the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.

         A. Social Security Ruling 16-3p

         Claimant first asserts that the ALJ failed to correctly assess the intensity and persistence of her symptoms pursuant to Social Security Ruling 16-3p, which became effective on March 28, 2016.

         Social Security Ruling 16-3p was intended to supersede former Ruling 96-7p, and was enacted for the purpose of providing “guidance about how we evaluate statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms in disability claims under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.” SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029 (March 16, 2013), at *1. Specifically, the Ruling

eliminat[ed] the use of the term “credibility” from [the Social Security Administration's] sub-regulatory policy, as our regulations do not use this term. In doing so, we clarify that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual's character. Instead, we will more closely follow our regulatory language regarding symptom evaluation.
Consistent with our regulations, we instruct our adjudicators to consider all of the evidence in an individual's record when they evaluate the intensity and persistence of symptoms after they find that the individual has a medically determinable impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce those symptoms. We evaluate the intensity and persistence of an individual's symptoms so we can determine how symptoms limit ability to perform work-related activities for an adult . . . .
In evaluating an individual's symptoms, our adjudicators will not assess an individual's overall character or truthfulness in the manner typically used during an adversarial court litigation. The focus of the evaluation of an individual's symptoms should not be to determine whether he or she is a truthful person. Rather, our adjudicators will focus on whether the evidence establishes a medically determinable impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the individual's symptoms and given the adjudicator's evaluation of the individual's symptoms, whether the intensity and persistence of the symptoms limit the individual's ability to perform work-related activities or, for a child with a title XVI disability claim, limit the child's ability to function independently, appropriately, and effectively in an age-appropriate manner.

Id. at *1-2, 10 (alterations and ellipses supplied).

         In the present case, the ALJ found that claimant had medically determinable impairments that could reasonably be expected to cause symptoms like those claimant alleged, but that “claimant's statements concerning her symptoms - including their intensity, persistence, and limiting effects - are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in this decision.”[1] Claimant asserts that the ALJ's use of the phrase “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence” does not satisfy the requirements of SSR 16-3p, and that the ALJ's decision lacked the analysis and specific findings required by that ruling. Specifically, claimant asserts that the ALJ failed to discuss her “long history of treatment for anxiety and depression, ”[2] and that the ALJ placed too much weight on the lack of objective medical evidence to support claimant's description of her symptoms. Those arguments are not supported by the record. To the contrary, the record reflects that the ALJ carefully considered whether all of the records relating to claimant's physical and mental health conditions - including carpal tunnel syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, knee popping, lower back pain, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder - were consistent with claimant's subjective complaints. The ALJ also considered statements from the state agency medical and psychological consultants who reviewed claimant's file. She did not impermissibly assess claimant's general, or overall, character for truthfulness.

         B. Obesity

         Claimant next contends that the ALJ improperly considered her obesity. The ALJ was required to evaluate the effect of claimant's obesity on her residual functional capacity in accordance with Social Security Ruling 02-1p, which states the following:

Obesity can cause limitation of function. The functions likely to be limited depend on many factors, including where the excess weight is carried. An individual may have limitations in any of the exertional functions such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling. It may also affect ability to do postural functions, such as climbing, balancing, stooping, and crouching. The ability to manipulate may be affected by the presence of adipose (fatty) tissue in the hands and fingers. The ability to tolerate extreme heat, humidity, or hazards may also be affected.
The effects of obesity may not be obvious. For example, some people with obesity also have sleep apnea. This can lead to drowsiness and lack of mental clarity during the day. Obesity may also affect an individual's social functioning.
An assessment should also be made of the effect obesity has upon the individual's ability to perform routine movement and necessary physical activity within the work environment. Individuals with obesity may have problems with the ability to sustain a function over time. As explained in SSR 96-8p (“Titles II and XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims”), our RFC assessments must consider an individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis. A “regular and continuing basis” means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule. In cases involving obesity, fatigue may affect the individual's physical and mental ability to sustain work activity. This may be particularly true in cases involving sleep apnea.
The combined effects of obesity with other impairments may be greater than might be expected without obesity. For example, someone with obesity and arthritis affecting a weight-bearing joint may have more pain and limitation than might be expected from the arthritis alone.
For a child applying for benefits under title XVI, we may evaluate the functional consequences of obesity (either alone or in combination with other impairments) to decide if the child's impairment(s) functionally equals the listings. For example, the functional limitations imposed by obesity, by itself or in combination with another impairment(s), may establish an extreme limitation in one domain of functioning (e.g., Moving about and manipulating ...

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