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Whatley v. Berryhill

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

March 28, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Julius Whatley (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq., and 1381, et seq. On October 24, 2018, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 19). 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. (Doc. 20). 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 July 15, 2014, alleging disability beginning May 31, 2013, based on high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis in his shoulders, hands, feet, and neck, high cholesterol, and acid reflux. (Doc. 11 at 35, 222, 244). Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, he was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Walter Vance Lassiter, Jr. (hereinafter “ALJ”) on March 16, 2016. (Id. at 51). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared by video from Selma, Alabama at the hearing and provided testimony related to his claims. (Id. at 57-81). A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 81-86). On July 28, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 32). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 15, 2017. (Id. at 4). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated July 28, 2016, became the final decision of the Commissioner.[2] (Id.).

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was conducted on November 27, 2018 (Doc. 23), and the parties agree that 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 properly considered the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Bruce Taylor, M.D.?
2. Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) determination?
3. Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff retains the ability to perform his past relevant work?
4. Whether the ALJ erred by failing to fully develop the record by ordering consultative orthopedic and neurological examinations?
5. Whether the ALJ erred when an individual with Plaintiff's vocational profile, limited to a full range of light work and unable to perform his past work, would be found disabled under Medical-Vocational Guidelines Rule 202.06?

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on September 8, 1959, and was fifty-six years of age at the time of his administrative hearing on March 16, 2016. (Doc. 11 at 57, 222). Plaintiff has a twelfth-grade education and attended trade school for auto body work. (Id. at 57-58, 245). Plaintiff last worked for a tree-trimming service in 2011. (Id. at 280-81). Plaintiff also formerly worked as a store laborer, lumber stacker, candy mixer, and beef boner. (Id. at 59-62, 81, 280, 282-84). He also worked jobs making concrete septic tanks and building windows. (Id. at 64, 285-86).

         According to Plaintiff, he can no longer work because when he gets overheated, it makes him nauseous, weak, and dizzy.[3] (Id. at 73). In addition, he has back, neck, and shoulder pain, as well as numbness and tingling in his feet and an inability to pick up small objects with his fingers. (Id. at 73-75). At the time of his hearing, Plaintiff was on two medications for high blood pressure, a statin for cholesterol, Meclizine for dizziness, and Amitriptyline for numbness and tingling in his feet. (Id. at 73-74). He also was prescribed Tramadol for pain in his back, neck, and shoulders. (Id. at 73). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that his medical treatment for diabetes has consisted of taking “about three or four” medications, but no insulin shots. (Id. at 74).

         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 Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied.[4] 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). “Substantial evidence is 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.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a reviewing court must consider the record as a whole, taking into account evidence both favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986) (per curiam); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, at *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 whether a claimant has proven his or her disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The claimant must first prove that he or she is not engaged in substantial gainful activity. Carpenter v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 614 Fed.Appx. 482, 486 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam). The second step requires the claimant to prove that he or she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. 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. Id. If the claimant cannot prevail at the third step, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four. Id. A claimant's RFC is an assessment, based on all relevant medical and other evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to work despite his or her impairments. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (llth Cir. 1997). Once a claimant's RFC is determined, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step, where the claimant must prove an inability to perform his or her past relevant work. Carpenter, 614 Fed.Appx. at 486.

         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 RFC, age, education, and work history. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam). If the Commissioner can demonstrate that there are such jobs the claimant can perform, the burden then shifts back to the claimant to prove his or her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Francis v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 1562, 1564 (11th Cir. 1985)).

         VI. The ALJ's Findings

         In the case sub judice, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the non-severe impairments of type two diabetes, benign hypertension, esophageal reflux disease, unspecified insomnia, history of gastroparesis, history of mononeuritis of the left lower extremity, possible history of lumbago, and possible history of cervicalgia which, when considered in combination, are severe. (Doc. 11 at 38). The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments, when considered individually and in combination, do not meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). (Id.). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), with the following additional limitations: Plaintiff can stand and/or walk for at least two hours without interruption and at least six hours over the course of an eight-hour workday; Plaintiff can sit for at least two hours without interruption and at least six hours over the course of an eight-hour workday; Plaintiff can occasionally crawl and can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, and scaffolds; Plaintiff cannot climb ropes, poles, or trees; Plaintiff can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; Plaintiff can occasionally work in poorly ventilated areas; Plaintiff cannot work at unprotected heights; and Plaintiff can frequently operate motorized vehicles and operate hazardous machinery. (Id. at 39). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a beef boner, candy mixer, store laborer, and tree-trimmer helper, both as actually performed and as generally performed. (Id. at 46-47). Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 47).

         VII. Discussion

         A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assignment of weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Bruce Taylor, M.D.

         In his brief, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to assign at least deferential weight to the opinions of his treating primary care physician, Dr. Bruce Taylor, M.D., that his back and neck pain, dizziness, and gait instability prevent him from being able to work. (Doc. 14 at 6-10). The Commissioner counters that the ALJ properly considered Dr. Taylor's opinions concerning Plaintiff's functional limitations and gave valid reasons for according the opinions little weight. (Doc. 17 at 4-5). The Commissioner further argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's ...

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