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Newbill v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2019

NANCY BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff George Adam Newbill (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. On August 16, 2018, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 23). 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), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and S.D. Ala. GenLR 73. (Doc. 24). Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. Procedural History[1]

         Plaintiff protectively filed his application for supplemental security income on June 16, 2014, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2013, based on hepatitis C, tonsillitis, stomach acid, weight loss, stomach ulcers, and seizures. (Doc. 12 at 137, 139, 167). Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, he was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Laura Robinson (hereinafter “ALJ”) on February 29, 2016. (Id. at 52, 84). Plaintiff attended the hearing with his counsel and provided testimony related to his claims. (Id. at 54-63). A vocational expert also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 64-66). On May 26, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 18-35). A second decision unfavorable to Plaintiff was issued by the ALJ on August 24, 2016.[2] The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 15, 2017. (Id. at 5). Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.).

         Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). 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 substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff had a medically determinable impairment of substance abuse disorder?
2. Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's substance abuse disorder was material to the determination of disability?
3. Whether the ALJ reversibly erred by giving little weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Edith Gubler McCreadie, M.D., regarding the side effects of Plaintiff's prescribed medications?

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on September 5, 1981 and was thirty-four years of age at the time of his administrative hearing on February 29, 2016. (Doc. 12 at 55). Plaintiff attended special education classes while in school, has an eighth or ninth-grade education, and is able to read and speak English. (Id. at 57, 159, 354). Plaintiff has a limited work history, and last worked as a construction worker in 2010. (Id. at 169, 355). At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that he is unable to work because he has no energy or strength and that he can hardly pick anything up because it “pulls to [his] stomach and [his] back.” (Id. at 58). Plaintiff is 5'11 and weighted 140 pounds at the time of his hearing and testified that he had lost approximately twenty pounds in the previous two years due to his diet, ulcers, a liver problem, and “blood disease.” (Id. at 55-56, 63). Plaintiff reported stomach ulcers, liver problems, seizures, nerve problems, and depression. (Id. at 58). Plaintiff's gastric ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and abdominal pain have been treated with a number of medications, including the proton pump inhibitors Protonix, Prilosec, and Nexium. (Id. at 45, 264, 267). Plaintiff reported that he has prescriptions for the opioid pain medications Dilaudid and Oxycodone and is prescribed the benzodiazepine Xanax for anxiety. (Id. at 45, 47, 49, 207). Plaintiff also testified that he had not used drugs or alcohol for two years. (Id. at 61).

         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.[3] 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. § 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. § 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. § 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 ...

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