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Johnson v. Berryhill

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

March 29, 2019

JOHN R. JOHNSON, III, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff John R. Johnson, III seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Mr. Johnson's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After careful review, the Court remands this matter for additional administrative proceedings.


         Mr. Johnson applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income on September 27, 2016. (Doc. 7-3, p. 11; Doc. 7-6, pp. 2-4; Doc. 7-6, pp. 5-12). Mr. Johnson initially alleged that his disability began on October 26, 2011. (Doc. 7-3, p. 11; Doc. 7-6, pp. 2-12). Mr. Johnson later amended his onset date to August 26, 2015. (Doc. 7-3, p. 11; Doc. 7-7, p. 21). The Commissioner initially denied Mr. Johnson's application. (Doc. 7-4, pp. 4-5). Mr. Johnson requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 7-5, pp. 10-11). The hearing took place on March 23, 2017. (Doc. 7-3, p. 36). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 10, 2017. (Doc. 7-3, p. 22). The Appeals Council declined Mr. Johnson's request for review (Doc. 7-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final for this Court's appellate 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 quotations and citation 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 he 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 Mr. Johnson meets the insured status requirements through September 30, 2019. (Doc. 7-3, p. 13). According to the ALJ, Mr. Johnson has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 26, 2015, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 7-3, p. 13). The Court notes that the ALJ's reference to 2015 is consistent with some documents in the record (Doc. 7-3, p. 11; Doc. 7-7, p. 21), but other documents reflect that Mr. Johnson stopped working in August 2016. (Doc. 7-8, p. 6; Doc. 7-8, p. 33). Also during the administrative hearing, Mr. Johnson's attorney indicated that Mr. Johnson's amended onset date is August 26, 2016. (Doc. 7-3, p. 40).

         The ALJ determined that Mr. Johnson suffers from three severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), degenerative disc disease, and degenerative joint disease. (Doc. 7-3, p. 13). Based on her review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Johnson does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 7-3, p. 14).

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

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except occasional postural maneuvers; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no crawling; frequent overhead reaching with bilateral upper extremities; avoid dangerous, moving, unguarded machinery and unprotected heights; can understand, remember, and apply simple instructions and tasks; limited to jobs involving infrequent and well explained work place changes; limited to occasional interaction with coworkers and the general public; and can concentrate and remain on task for two hours at a time, sufficient to complete an eight-hour workday.

(Doc. 7-3, p.16). Based on this RFC and vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Johnson is able to perform his past relevant work as a surveillance system monitor. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 20, 58). Relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and expert testimony, the ALJ found that Mr. Johnson is capable of doing other light jobs including housekeeper, product marker, and packager. (Doc. 7-3, p. 21). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Johnson has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 7-3, p. 22).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Johnson argues that he is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because the ALJ did not properly evaluate the credibility of his subjective testimony concerning PTSD. (Doc. 11, p. 5).[1] Mr. Johnson also maintains that the ALJ did not provide good cause for giving less weight to the opinion of Dr. Brannon, Mr. Johnson's treating psychiatrist. (Doc. 11, p. 18). Because the ALJ's negative credibility finding is not based on substantial evidence, the Court will remand for further administrative proceedings. See Carpenter v. Astrue, No. 8:10-CV-290-T-TGW, 2011 WL 767652, at *5 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 25, 2011) (“[I]f a credibility determination is inadequate, a remand to the agency for further consideration is the proper remedy.”).

         The Eleventh Circuit pain standard “applies when a disability claimant attempts to establish disability through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). To establish a disability based on testimony concerning the symptoms of an impairment, “the claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test showing: (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged [symptoms]; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed [symptoms].” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991)). A claimant's testimony coupled with evidence that meets this standard “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223 (citation omitted). If the ALJ discredits a claimant's subjective testimony, the ALJ “must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002).

         When credibility is at issue, the provisions of SSR 16-3p apply. SSR 16-3p provides:

[W]e recognize that some individuals may experience symptoms differently and may be limited by symptoms to a greater or lesser extent than other individuals with the same medical impairments, the same objective medical evidence, and the same non-medical evidence. In considering the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of an individual's symptoms, we examine the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence; an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual's case record.

SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *4. Concerning the ALJ's burden when discrediting a claimant's subjective symptoms, SSR 16-3p provides:

it is not sufficient . . . to make a single, conclusory statement that “the individual's statements about his or her symptoms have been considered” or that “the statements about the individual's symptoms are (or are not) supported or consistent.” It is also not enough . . . simply to recite the factors described in the regulations for evaluating symptoms. The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.

SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *10.

         In evaluating a claimant's subjective report of his symptoms, an ALJ “must consider the following factors: (i) the claimant's ‘daily activities; (ii) the location, duration, frequency, and intensity of the [claimant's] pain or other symptoms; (iii) [p]recipitating and aggravating factors; (iv) the type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication the [claimant took] to alleviate pain or other symptoms; (v) treatment, other than medication, [the claimant] received for relief ... of pain or other symptoms; and (vi) any measures the claimant personally used to relieve pain or other symptoms.'” Leiter v. Comm'r of SSA, 377 Fed.Appx. 944, 947 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3)).

         Mr. Johnson developed PTSD following his military service in the Gulf War. As a member of the Army, Mr. Johnson served in Iraq for one year. (Doc. 7-11, p. 48; 7-12, p. 29). Mr. Johnson primarily drove an armored combat vehicle and helped with route clearance. (Doc. 7-11, p. 48). During his deployment, Mr. Johnson was “blown off the road twice” and witnessed deaths. (Doc. 7-11, p. 48; Doc. 7-12, p. 54).

         Mr. Johnson testified that the VA originally misdiagnosed him with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. (Doc. 7-3, p. 44). Mr. Johnson received a PTSD diagnosis from the VA in August or September of 2016. (Doc. 7-3, p. 45; Doc. ...

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