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Wells v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

September 16, 2018




         Plaintiff Shannon Wells (“Wells”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) as well as her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). Wells timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         On September 18, 2014, Wells protectively filed applications for a period of disability and DIB as well as for SSI, alleging she became unable to work beginning August 11, 2014. (Tr. 58, 229-38). The Agency initially denied Wells' applications on December 31, 2014. (Tr. 58, 168-78). Thereafter, Wells filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 58, 179). Wells appeared and testified at a hearing held on September 14, 2015, in Gadsden, Alabama. (Tr. 58, 78-130). After the hearing, the ALJ denied Wells' claim on November 17, 2015. (Tr. 55-77). Wells sought review by the Appeals Council, but it declined her request on February 13, 2017. (Tr. 1-7). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On April 13, 2017, Wells initiated this action. (See doc. 1).

         Wells was thirty-eight-years-old at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 70). Wells has at least a high school education and can communicate in English. (Tr. 71). Wells' past relevant work includes being a home health aide, an assistant manager, an auto detailer, and a sales attendant. (Tr. 70).

         II. Standard of Review[2]

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this Court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This 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.

         This Court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial evidence may even exist contrary to the findings of the ALJ, and [the reviewing court] may have taken a different view of it as a factfinder. Yet, if there is substantially supportive evidence, the findings cannot be overturned.” Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). However, the Court 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 the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[3] The Regulations define “disabled” as “the inability to do 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 twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to the formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.” Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge

         After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ made the following findings:

         At Step One, the ALJ found Wells met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016 (her date last insured or “DLI”), and that Wells had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of August 11, 2014. (Tr. 61). At Step Two, the ALJ found Wells has the following severe impairments: arthritis, scoliosis, anxiety, and depression. (Id.). At Step Three, the ALJ found Wells did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 62-65).

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Wells' residual functioning capacity (“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ determined that Wells had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except Wells is unable to drive. Wells is unable to have exposure to uneven terrain. Wells is unable to climb. Wells is unable to have exposure to unprotected heights. Wells is unable to operate hazardous machinery. Wells is able to stoop and crouch occasionally. Wells is able to perform simple, repetitive, non-complex tasks. Wells is able to use her upper extremities for pushing and for pulling occasionally. Wells is able to use her lower extremities for pushing and/or pulling or for foot controls occasionally. (Tr. 66-70).

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined Wells is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 70). At Step Five, the ALJ determined, based on Wells' age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy Jones could perform. (Tr. 71-72). Therefore, the ALJ determined Wells has not been under a disability and denied Wells' claim. (Tr. 72).

         V. Analysis

         Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported by substantial evidence or because improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his does not relieve the court of its responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding.” Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Wells, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)). The court, however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).

         Here, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination Wells failed to demonstrate a disability, and the ALJ applied the proper standards to reach this conclusion. Wells challenges the Commissioner's decision on the following specific grounds: (1) the ALJ is biased against claimants and such bias affected his decision in this case; (2) the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the opinions of treating physician Dr. Odeane Conner and consulting psychologist Dr. Jack Bentley, and failed to show cause for rejecting Dr. Conner's opinion; (3) the decision was not based on substantial evidence when submissions to the Appeals Council are considered, as the Appeals Council failed to review new, material, and chronologically relevant submissions solely because the records were dated after the date of the ALJ's decision; (4) the ALJ failed to state adequate reasons for finding Wells' allegations not credible; and (5) the ALJ failed to develop the record concerning the side effects of Wells' pain medication. (Doc. 12 at 2).

         A. Allegations of ALJ Bias

         Wells contends the ALJ is biased against social security claimants and that the ALJ's bias affected his decision in her case. (Doc. 12 at 30). Wells further asserts the ALJ has a “pattern and practice [of] substituting his opinion for the opinions of medical experts.” (Id.). In support of her argument, Wells contends the ALJ disregarded her treating physician's opinion, has a low rate of favorable decisions, and has previously been reversed by federal courts numerous times. (Id. at 30-37; doc. 18 at 1-3).

         As the Eleventh Circuit explained in Miles ...

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