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Davis v. Social Security Administration

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

March 27, 2019

ANDREA SUE DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

The plaintiff, Andrea Sue Davis, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Davis timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the Commissioner's decision is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         Davis completed the twelfth grade but did not obtain her diploma or GED. (Tr. at 42). She has previously worked as a server in a restaurant and as a cashier and sales associate in retail establishments. (Id. at 260, 281, 314). In her applications for DIB and SSI filed on February 18, 2016, Davis alleged she became disabled on January 1, 2013, as a result of hypothyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), endometriosis, human papillomavirus (“HPV”), nerve and muscle pain, dysrhythmia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), anxiety, depression, anger, and chronic fatigue. (Id. at 97-98, 116-17).[2] After her February 18, 2016 applications were denied, Davis requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 114-15, 133-34, 142-48, 151). Following a hearing, the ALJ determined Davis was not disabled. (Id. at 16-26). Davis was 29 years old when the ALJ issued his decision. (Id. at 26, 67). After the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision (id. at 1), that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Frye v. Massanari, 209 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1251 (N.D. Ala. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). Thereafter, Davis commenced this action. (Doc. 1).

         II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To establish eligibility for disability benefits, a claimant must show “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A); see also Id. at § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). Furthermore, a DIB claimant must show she was disabled between her alleged initial onset date and her date last insured. Mason v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 430 Fed.Appx. 830, 831 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1209, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Demandre v. Califano, 591 F.2d 1088, 1090 (5th Cir. 1979)). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         “Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) and (b), 416.920(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first step, the ALJ determined Davis met the Social Security Administration's insured status requirements through September 30, 2017, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 1, 2013. (Tr. at 18).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. at §§ 404.1521, 416.921; see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D). An impairment is severe if it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).[3]“[A]n impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments, even though none of the individual impairments alone is disabling. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. The claimant bears the burden of providing medical evidence demonstrating an impairment and its severity. Id. at §§ 404.1512(a) and (c), 416.912(a) and (c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) and (c). At the second step, the ALJ determined Davis has the following severe impairments: ADHD, anxiety disorder, severe major depressive disorder with psychotic features, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a specific learning disorder with an impairment in reading comprehension, and restless leg syndrome. (Tr. at 18).[4]

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment meets or equals one of the “Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); see also Id. at §§ 404.1525-26, 416.925-26. The claimant bears the burden of proving her impairment meets or equals one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the Listings, the Commissioner will find the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and (d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined Davis does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. at 19).

         If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e); see also Id. at §§ 404.1545, 416.945. A claimant's RFC is the most she can do despite her impairments. See Id. at §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare an assessment of the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 404.1560(b), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 416.960(b). “Past relevant work is work that [the claimant] [has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it.” Id. at §§ 404.1560(b)(1), 416.960(b)(1). The claimant bears the burden of proving her impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1560(b)(3), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.960(b)(3).

         Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ determined Davis has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following limitations: she should never climb ladders or scaffolds; she should never be exposed to unprotected heights, dangerous tools or machinery, or hazardous processes; she should never operate commercial vehicles; she is limited to routine and repetitive tasks and making simple work-related decisions; she is not able to perform at a production-rate pace but can perform other goal-oriented work; she can have frequent interaction with supervisors but only occasional interaction with coworkers and the general public; and in addition to normal workday breaks, she would be off-task five percent of an eight-hour workday. (Tr. at 21). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Davis is unable to perform her past relevant work. (Id. at 24).

         If the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner must finally determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 404.1560(c)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.960(c)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1).

         At the fifth step, considering Davis' age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Davis can perform, such as those of laundry laborer, cleaner, and packager. (Tr. at 25). Therefore, the ALJ concluded Davis is not disabled. (Id. at 26).

         III. Standard of Review

          Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A district court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district 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) (internal citations omitted). 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. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         A district court reviews the Commissioner's legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         IV. Discussion

         On appeal, Davis argues (1) the ALJ erred in assigning only partial weight to the opinion of Dr. June Nichols, (2) she has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets Listing 12.06, (3) the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, and (4) the ALJ failed to adequately consider her testimony regarding the side effects of her medication. (Doc. 10).

         A. Dr. Nichols' Opinion

         “ ‘Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s), including [the claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [the claimant's] physical or mental restrictions.'” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178-79 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2)).

         “The ALJ must state with particularity the weight given to different medical opinions and the reasons for doing so.” Forrester v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 455 Fed.Appx. 899, 902 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Sharfarz v. Bowen, 825 F.2d 278, 279 (11th Cir. 1987)). “The ALJ may consider many factors when weighing medical evidence, including the claimant's relationship with the examining or treating physician, whether a medical opinion is well-supported, whether a medical opinion is consistent with the claimant's records, and a doctor's specialization.” Wilcox v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 442 Fed.Appx. 438, 439 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)).

         An ALJ's failure to clearly articulate the weight assigned to a medical opinion is an error that requires reversal and remand. See McClurkin v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 625 Fed.Appx. 960, 962 (11th Cir. 2015) (“In the absence of [a clear articulation of the weight given different medical opinions], it is impossible for a reviewing court to determine whether the ultimate decision on the merits of the claim is rational and supported by substantial evidence[, ]” and “ ‘we will decline to ...


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