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Scott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

February 27, 2019

THOMAS D. SCOTT, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Thomas D. Scott (hereinafter “Plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Titles II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. On October 19, 2018, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 17). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History[1]

         Plaintiff filed his application for benefits on January 22, 2016, alleging disability beginning May 1, 2014, based on major depression, borderline personality disorder, asthma, sleep apnea, degenerative disc of the spine, left knee, right ankle, hearing loss, and tinnitus. (Doc. 8 at 172, 196, 205). Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, he was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge L. Dawn Pischek (hereinafter “ALJ”) on November 14, 2016. (Id. at 39). Plaintiff attended the hearing with his attorney and provided testimony related to his claims. (Id. at 42). A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 68). On April 24, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 19). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 15, 2017. (Id. at 5). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated April 24, 2017, became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was conducted on November 8, 2018. (Doc. 20). This case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. Issues on Appeal

         1. Whether the ALJ reversibly erred in failing to find that Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled Listing 12.04 and/or 12.08?

         2. Whether the ALJ reversibly erred in failing to accord adequate weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. John Cranton?

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on November 17, 1970, and was forty-five years of age at the time of his administrative hearing on November 14, 2016. (Doc. 8 at 39, 205). Plaintiff graduated from high school and received training in technical school in drafting, computer aided drafting, and design. (Id. at 44).

         Plaintiff last worked from approximately 2000 to 2016 as a recruiter for the military. (Id. at 46, 69, 220). Prior to that, he worked as an electrician. (Id. at 59).

         Plaintiff testified that he can no longer work because of grief over his mother's death and because of problems with anger and depression. (Id. at 59-62). He takes Adderall to help him focus. (Id. at 51-52).

         IV. Standard of Review

         In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied.[2]Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance” and consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable, as well as unfavorable, to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).

         V. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as the “inability to engage in 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant has proven his disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The claimant must first prove that he or she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity. The second step requires the claimant to prove that he or she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. If, at the third step, the claimant proves that the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience. If the claimant cannot prevail at the third step, he or she must proceed to the fourth step where the claimant must prove an inability to perform their past relevant work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986). At the fourth step, the ALJ must make an assessment of the claimant's RFC. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1238 (llth Cir. 2004). The RFC is an assessment, based on all relevant medical and other evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to work despite his impairment. See Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997).

         If a claimant meets his or her burden at the fourth step, it then becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove at the fifth step that the claimant is capable of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment which exists in significant numbers in the national economy, given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work history. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). If the Commissioner can demonstrate that there are such jobs the claimant can perform, the claimant must prove inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). See also Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Francis v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 1562, 1564 (11th Cir. 1985)).

         VI. Discussion

         A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal Listings 12.04 or 12.08.

         In his brief, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding that his impairments do not meet Listings 12.04 and/or 12.08 given that his treatment records and opinions from his treating physicians satisfy the criteria for these Listings. (Doc. 9 at 7). The Government counters that the ALJ considered all of Plaintiff's impairments and found that they did not meet these or any other Listings and that the ALJ's finding is supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 13 at 6). Having reviewed the record at length, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claim is without merit.

         When a claimant, such as Plaintiff in the instant case, contends that he has an impairment meeting the listed impairments, he must “present specific medical findings that meet the various tests listed under the description of the applicable impairment.” Bell v. Bowen, 796 F.2d 1350, 1353 (11th Cir. 1986). A diagnosis of a listed impairment is not sufficient. See Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1218 (11th Cir. 1991). The record must contain corroborative medical evidence supported by clinical and laboratory findings. Id.; accord Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990) (“Each impairment [in the Listings] is defined in terms of several specific medical signs, symptoms, or laboratory test results. For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify.”).

         To meet Listing 12.04 (describing “depressive, bipolar, and related disorders”), a claimant must establish the criteria of paragraphs “A and B, or A and C, ”[3] as follows:

A. Medical documentation of the requirements of paragraph 1 or 2:
1. Depressive disorder, characterized by five or more of the following:
a. Depressed mood;
b. Diminished interest in almost all activities;
c. Appetite disturbance with change in ...

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