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Twilley v. Berryhill

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

April 4, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration; Defendant.



         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(g), plaintiff Wendy Twilley seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         On September 12, 2013, Ms. Twilley protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging that her disability began on June 1, 2007. (Doc. 6-3, p. 22; Doc. 6-6, p. 2-7; Doc. 6-7, p. 22). Subsequently, Ms. Twilley amended the onset date to September 12, 2013. (Doc. 6-3, p. 43). On December 13, 2013, the Commissioner initially denied her claims. (Doc. 6-3, p. 22).

         On February 11, 2014, Ms. Twilley requested a hearing before an ALJ. (Doc. 6-3, p. 22). On April 8, 2015, the ALJ held a hearing on Ms. Twilley's claims. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 39-66). On June 19, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision and found that Ms. Twilley was not disabled. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 19-34). On August 20, 2015, Ms. Twilley asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 6-3, p. 15). On December 15, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Twilley's request for review. (Doc. 6-3, p. 2).


         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 her ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 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., 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 she 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 Ms. Twilley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 12, 2013, the amended onset date. (Doc. 6-3, p. 24). The ALJ determined that Ms. Twilley suffers from the following severe impairments: “migraines, history of pseudo seizure disorder, mitral valve disorder, history of asthma, fibromyalgia, and obesity.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 24). The ALJ also determined that Ms. Twilley “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 27).

         With respect to the identified impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Twilley's RFC and found that Mr. Twilley has:

the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except that [Ms. Twilley] can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ladders and scaffolds. The claimant can tolerate occasional exposure to extreme cold and heat, but should never be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, or operating a motor vehicle for commercial purposes. [Ms. Twilley] should avoid large bodies of water and have no more than occasional exposure to dust, odors and pulmonary irritants. [Ms. Twilley] is limited to simple tasks and few changes in a routine work setting due to possible pain distractions.

(Doc. 6-3, p. 28).

         The ALJ found that Ms. Twilley “has no past relevant work.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 33). Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Ms. Twilley] can perform” including garment folder, small products assembler, or office helper. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 33-34). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that: “[Ms. Twilley] has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since September 12, 2013, the date the application was filed.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 34).

         On appeal, Ms. Twilley has raised multiple challenges to the ALJ's decision. The Court considers each argument in turn.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility determination.

         Ms. Twilley argues that ALJ failed to properly state reasons for discounting her credibility. (Doc. 11, p. 24). “To establish a disability based on testimony of pain and other symptoms, the claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test by showing ‘(1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged pain; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed pain.'” Zuba-Ingram v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 600 Fed.Appx. 650, 656 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (per curiam)). A claimant's testimony coupled with evidence that meets this standard “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991) (citation omitted).

         If the ALJ discredits a claimant's subjective testimony, then the ALJ “must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225. “While an adequate credibility finding need not cite particular phrases or formulations[, ] broad findings that a claimant lacked credibility . . . are not enough . . . .” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1562 (11th Cir. 1995) (per curiam); see SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186 at *2 (“The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to the individual and to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the individual's statements and the reasons for that weight.”).

         Ms. Twilley reported limitations related to migraines and fibromyalgia, among other issues. (Doc. 6-7, p. 13). In her function report, she stated that sometimes she has to stay in bed all day if she has a bad migraine. (Doc. 6-7, p. 26). She also reported that she sometimes cooks for her children, she can drive when she is not having a migraine or a seizure, and she goes shopping about once a week. (Doc. 6-7, pp. 28-29).

         At the administrative hearing, Ms. Twilley testified that she has migraines approximately three times per month, and her migraine headaches typically last one week. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 46-47). She reported taking medication, but she stated that it does not work. (Doc. 6-3, p. 48). She explained that when she has a migraine, she must lie down in a dark room. (Doc. 6-3, p. 48). She stated that her daughter does most of the housework. (Doc. 6-3, p. 53). She also stated that she has fibromyalgia that causes her pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 49). Ms. Twilley stated that in a 12 month period, she may have stress-induced seizures in eight of those months. (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Sometimes three days pass between the seizures, and other times, seizures may occur in two-week intervals. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 58-59).

         The ALJ found that “[Ms. Twilley's] medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [Ms. Twilley's] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible . . . .” (Doc. 6-3, p. 31).

         The ALJ determined that a “lack of medical treatment and objective abnormalities undermines the claimant's allegations about the debilitating nature of her impairments.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). Regarding headaches and seizures, the ALJ stated that the record does not contain “a longitudinal treatment history of [Ms. Twilley's] impairments, only a few hospital visits.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). The ALJ recognized that Ms. Twilley's doctor stated that she had multiple admissions and consultations, but the ALJ noted that the doctor did not provide “treatment records or objective medical evidence to support his statement.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). In addition, the ALJ observed that Ms. Twilley's test results generally were normal. (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). With respect to Ms. Twilley's fibromyalgia, history of asthma, and mitral valve disorder, the ALJ observed that Ms. Twilley “received little or no treatment.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). The ALJ noted that Ms. Twilley's doctor, Dr. Sesay, found that Ms. Twilley suffers from fibromyalgia, but the ALJ observed that there were no treatment records, and examination records contained normal findings. (Doc. 6-3, p 31). The ALJ also determined that Ms. Twilley's “activities of daily living are greater than what one would expect of a fully disabled individual.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 32). In addition, the ALJ explained that Ms. Twilley's work history undercuts her testimony. (Doc. 6-3, p. 32).

         In her brief, Ms. Twilley states that the evidence “does reveal six admissions and/or ER visits for migraine headaches with seizures.” (Doc. 11, p. 21).[1]Otherwise, Ms. Twilley does not identify evidence in the administrative record that contradicts the ALJ's findings. The Court has examined the medical evidence and the evidence concerning Ms. Twilley's daily activities and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility determination.

         i. Medical Treatment

         When evaluating the credibility of the claimant's reports of the severity of her condition, an ALJ may examine the extent to which a claimant has sought medical treatment. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, *7.[2] An ALJ also may consider whether tests results in medical records reveal normal findings. Brown v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 680 Fed.Appx. 822, 826 (11th Cir. 2017) (evidence supported the ALJ's determination that claimant was only partially credible where no physician suggested claimant could not work, physicians reported mostly normal conditions, MRI scans were normal, doctors recommended conservative treatments, and claimant could engage in a range of activities.).

         1. ...

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