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Adams v. Berryhill

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

January 15, 2019

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff Melanie Dempsey Adams seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Adams's claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. After careful review, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         In June of 2014, Ms. Adams applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 6-3, p. 20; Doc. 6-6, p. 2). Ms. Adams alleges her disability began on September 17, 2013. (Doc. 6-6, p. 2). The Commissioner denied Ms. Adams's claim on August 7, 2014. (Doc. 6-3, p. 20; Doc. 6-4, pp. 30-31).

         Ms. Adams requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-5, p. 16). The hearing took place on May 12, 2016. (Doc. 6-3, p. 42). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 13, 2016. (Doc. 6-3, p. 17). On May 12, 2017, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Adams's request for review (Doc. 6-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To determine whether a claimant has proven disability, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Adams has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 17, 2013, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 6-3, p. 22). The ALJ determined that Ms. Adams suffers from the following severe impairments: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate with anxiety; and status-post right knee total arthroplasty. (Doc. 6-3, p. 23). The ALJ determined that Ms. Adams suffers from the following non-severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). (Doc. 6-3, p. 23). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Adams does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 6-3, p. 25).

         In light of Ms. Adams's impairments, the ALJ evaluated her residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that through her date last insured, Ms.

         Adams had the RFC to perform:

medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) with additional limitations. Specifically, the claimant was able to frequently use right foot controls and frequently climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders or scaffolds. The claimant could have frequently stooped but c[ould] only occasionally crouched, kneeled and crawled. The claimant should never have been exposed to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, dangerous tools, hazardous processes or operated commercial motor vehicles. The undersigned further finds that the claimant could have done routine and repetitive tasks and she would have been limited to making simple work-related decisions. She would have been able to accept constructive non-confrontational criticism, could work[] in small group settings and have been able to accept changes in the work place setting if introduced gradually and infrequently. The claimant would have been unable to perform assembly line work with production rate pace but could have performed other goal-oriented work. In addition to normal workday breaks, she would have been off-task 5 percent of an 8-hour workday (non-consecutive minutes).

(Doc. 6-3, p. 28).

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that through the date last insured, Ms. Adams could not perform her past relevant work as an English teacher, a driver's education instructor, or a recruiter. (Doc. 6-3, p. 34). Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that other jobs existed in the national economy that Ms. Adams could have performed, including auto detailer, bagger, and hospital cleaner. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 35-36). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Adams was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from September 17, 2013, the alleged onset date, through June 30, 2014, the date last insured. (Doc. 6-3, p. 36).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Adams appeals the ALJ's decision for two reasons. Ms. Adams maintains that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility under the Eleventh Circuit pain standard, and Ms. Adams challenges the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinion evidence pertaining to her mental functioning. After considering the parties' arguments and examining the record, the Court finds that substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's decision.

         A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility finding.

         The ALJ's credibility determination is based on substantial evidence. The Eleventh Circuit pain standard “applies when a disability claimant attempts to establish disability through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). To establish disability based on testimony regarding pain and other symptoms, a claimant “must satisfy two parts of a three-part test showing: (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged pain; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991)). A claimant's testimony coupled with evidence that meets this standard “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 ...

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