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Cooper v. Berryhill

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

September 21, 2018

NELDA COOPER, Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION I. INTRODUCTION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On March 7, 2014, the claimant, Nelda Marie Cooper, 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 September 27, 2013, because of bone spurs, herniated disks in her back, depression, stress, and anxiety. The Commissioner denied the claim on July 15, 2014. The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on November 16, 2015. (R. 32, 66-103).

         In a decision dated February 25, 2016, 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 February 15, 2017, 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, 14-27).

         II. ISSUE PRESENTED

         The claimant presents the following issues for review:

1. whether the ALJ properly assessed the claimant's subjective complaints under the pain standard; and
2. whether the ALJ accorded proper weight to the opinions of the claimant's consulting physician, Dr. Fava.

         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 (c).

         If the ALJ decides to discredit the claimant's testimony as to her pain or other symptoms, 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.

         The Global Assessment Functioning Score (GAF) is a subjective determination that represents the clinician's judgment of the individual's overall level of functioning. Wesley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 99-1226, 2000 WL 191664, at *3 (6th Cir. 2000). Failure to reference a GAF score is not, standing alone, sufficient ground to reverse a disability determination. Howard v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 276 F.3d 235, 241 (6th Cir. 2002). An assessment of a GAF score of 50 or below can indicate serious mental impairments in functioning. McCloud v. Barnhart, 166 Fed.Appx. 410, 418 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing the American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 34 (4th ed. 1994)). For any GAF score in the medical record revealing possible serious mental impairments, the ALJ should determine what weight, if any, to give that particular score. Id. However, the GAF scale “does not have a direct correlation to the severity requirements in [the] mental disorders listings.” Nye v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 524 Fed.Appx. 538 (11th Cir. 2013). Therefore, the ALJ is not required to rely on a GAF score in making his ultimate disability determination. Luterman v. Commissioner, 518 Fed.Appx. 683, 690 (11th Cir. 2013).

         Furthermore, the ALJ must state with particularity the weight he gave different medical opinions and the reasons therefore, and 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 consider all medical opinions, but does not have to give special deference to an opinion from a single consultation. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). 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).

         V. FACTS

         The claimant was fifty-seven years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. The claimant has a ninth grade education and has worked as a cook, caregiver, and housekeeper. The claimant alleges disability beginning on September 27, 2013, because of bone spurs, herniated disks in her back, depression, stress, and anxiety. (R. 14, 163, 204-09).

         Physical Impairments

         The earliest report of the claimant's back pain in the record is dated June 30, 2005, when she visited Dr. Anne Davis at Talladega Internal Medicine for a pre-employment physical to work as a caregiver at Sunset Inn. Dr. Davis reported that the claimant had a herniated disk, suffered from lower back pain, but appeared to be able to work. On September 13, 2005, the claimant visited the Citizens Baptist Medical Center's emergency room because of back pain, and Dr. Radwan Mallah prescribed Lortab, Flexeril, and Voltaren to the claimant. (R. 268-76, 281).

         The claimant returned to Dr. Davis on June 12, 2007 for another employment physical for Sunset Inn. The claimant reported back pain, primarily in her lumbar region. Dr. Davis stated that the claimant appeared “adequately suited” to work at Sunset Inn and prescribed Naproxen for her back pain. The record does not contain medical notes about the claimant's back pain from June 13, 2007 to June 22, 2011. (R. 278-81).

         The claimant attended a third employment physical for Sunset Inn on June 23, 2011, where she reported back pain and chronic dizziness. The claimant reported that she took Aleve for her back pain and Meclizine for dizziness. Her final physical was on February 13, 2012 and was for a new job at Gardens of Talladega. Dr. Davis reported that the claimant had no complaints and appeared to be physically fit and able to work. The record ...


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