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Harris v. Berryhill

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

February 15, 2019

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



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Monica Delane Harris seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Harris's claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. After careful review, the Court remands this matter for additional administrative proceedings.


         In November of 2014, Ms. Harris applied for disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 7-3, p. 16); (see Doc. 7-4, p. 17 (Box 7 - indicating disability insurance benefits claim and Box 11 - indicating date of application); see also Doc. 7-6, p. 2 (Application Summary)). Ms. Harris alleges that her disability began on May 16, 2014. (Doc. 7-6, p. 2; Doc. 7-4, p. 17 (Box 11)). The Commissioner denied Ms. Harris's claim in March of 2015. (Doc. 7-3, p. 16; Doc. 7-5, p. 8).[1]

         Ms. Harris requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 7-3, p. 12). On July 18, 2016, the ALJ held a hearing in Birmingham, Alabama. (Doc. 7-3, p. 33). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 13, 2016. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 13-15, 28). On May 24, 2017, the Appeals Council declined Ms. Harris's request for review (Doc. 7-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final for this Court's judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).


         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 quotation marks 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 that she is disabled, 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 the Ms. Harris met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. (Doc. 7-3, p. 18). The ALJ determined that Ms. Harris had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 16, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 7-3, p. 18).

         The ALJ concluded that Ms. Harris suffers from the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post diskectomy. (Doc. 7-3, p. 18). The ALJ determined Ms. Harris has the following non-severe impairments: complex regional pain syndrome, essential hypertension, vertigo, obesity, and anxiety. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 18-20). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Harris does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 7-3, p. 21).

         In light of Ms. Harris's impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Harris's residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Ms. Harris has the RFC to perform:

Sedentary work . . . limited to unskilled work not involving complex instructions or procedures. The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, or work at unprotected heights or around hazardous machinery. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, crawl, crouch and kneel. Lastly, the claimant can tolerate frequent interaction with coworkers, supervisors and the general public.

(Doc. 7-3, p. 21)

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Harris cannot perform her past relevant job as a food service worker. (Doc. 7-3, p. 26). Relying upon testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that other jobs existed in the national economy that Ms. Harris could do, including optical goods assembler, wire wrapper, and stuffer. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 27, 49). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Harris was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from May 16, 2014, the alleged onset date, through November 18, 2014, the date of the decision. (Doc. 7-3, p. 28).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Ms. Harris maintains that the ALJ improperly evaluated her credibility under the Eleventh Circuit pain standard and disregarded the side effects of her pain medication. (Doc. 9, pp. 7-11). After considering the parties' arguments and examining the record, the Court finds that the record does not contain substantial evidence to support the ALJ's decision.

         To establish disability based on testimony about subjective pain, a claimant must provide “(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected to give rise to the alleged pain.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991).

         In determining the existence of a disability, “[a] claimant's subjective testimony supported by medical evidence that satisfies the pain standard is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223). If an ALJ finds that the claimant's testimony is not credible, then the ALJ must explain the reason for discrediting that testimony. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1212 n.4 (11th Cir. 2005) (requiring “explicit articulation of the reasons justifying a decision to discredit a claimant's subjective pain testimony”) (internal citation omitted); Holt, ...

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