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King v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama

September 5, 2018

MARTHA KING, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On September 12, 2013, the claimant, Martha Nell King, filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. The claimant alleged disability commencing on August 12, 2013 because of degenerative disc disease, seizures, and pain. The Commissioner denied the claim on January 15, 2014. The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on June 11, 2015. (R. 26-46, 47, 48, 57, 113-16, 119-25).

         In a decision dated October 26, 2015, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and was, therefore, ineligible for social security benefits. On December 12, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, this court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-5, 10-21).

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED

         The claimant presents the following issues for review:

1. whether the ALJ properly assessed the claimant's subjective complaints; and
2. whether the ALJ accorded proper weight to the opinions of the claimant's treating physician, Dr. Okor.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of reviewing the Commissioner's decision is limited. This court must affirm the ALJ's decision if he applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports his factual conclusions. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

         “No . . . presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. This court does not review the Commissioner's factual determinations de novo. The court will affirm those factual determinations that are supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors “are not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as substantial evidence in the record supports it.

         The court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s factual finding.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must view the record in its entirety and take account of the evidence that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir. 1986).

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         In evaluating pain and other subjective complaints, the Commissioner must consider whether the claimant demonstrated an underlying medical condition, and either (1) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from the condition or (2) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can reasonably be expected to give rise to the alleged pain. Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). Once the claimant establishes an impairment, the ALJ must consider all evidence about the intensity, persistence, and functionally limiting effects of pain or other symptoms in deciding the issue of disability. Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995). In addition to objective medical evidence, the ALJ will consider daily activities; the location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the claimant's pain or other symptoms; precipitating and aggravating factors; medication, treatments, and other measures used to alleviate pain or other symptoms; and functional limitations and restrictions caused by pain or other symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529.

         If the ALJ decides to discredit the claimant's testimony as to her pain, he must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for that decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1561-62. A reviewing court will not disturb a clearly articulated credibility finding with supporting substantial evidence in the record. Id. at 1562.

         In considering medical opinions, the ALJ must state with particularity the weight he gave different medical opinions and the reasons, and the failure to do so is reversible error. Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987); see also MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986). The ALJ must give the testimony of a treating physician substantial or considerable weight unless “good cause” is shown to the contrary. Crawford v. Comm'r, 363 F.3d 1155, 1159 (11th Cir. 2004). The Commissioner may reject any medical opinion if the evidence supports a contrary finding. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 835 (11th Cir. 1985). If the ALJ articulates specific reasons for failing to give the opinion of a treating physician controlling weight and substantial evidence supports those reasons, the ALJ does not commit reversible error. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2005).

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was forty-nine years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. The claimant has a high school education and has past work as a driver supervisor, dispatcher, and cashier. The claimant alleges disability beginning on August 12, 2013, based on degenerative disc disease, seizures, and pain. (R. 21, 39-40, 48, 113, 153).

         Physical Impairments

         The claimant began experiencing neck, right shoulder, and right arm pain in September 2012. In October, she received a cervical epidural injection, which provided relief for four months. The pain returned at the end of January 2013, and the claimant received another epidural injection in February, which provided relief for two weeks. A cervical MRI on May 30, 2013, demonstrated “spondylotic changes at ¶ 4-5 and C5-6 characterized by disc bulges and disc osteophyte complexes that lead to moderate bilateral C4-5 and severe right C5-6 neural foraminal stenosis.” On June 10, 2013, Dr. Mamerhi Okor commented that the claimant was in significant distress and complained of severe pain in her neck, right shoulder, and right arm; numbness in all the fingers of her right hand; and constant headaches and jaw pain. Dr. Okor also stated, “While aspects of her clinical presentation are consistent with a right C6 radiculitis, her ...


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