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Ford v. Berryhill

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

July 19, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Shawntae Laquetta Ford appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income benefits (“SSI”). Ford timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to the full dispositive jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 626(c). Doc. 11.

         Ford was 36 years old at the time of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and she has at least a high school education. Tr. at 23 & 95. Her past work experiences include employment as an appointment clerk, account clerk, and loan clerk. Tr. at 22 & 67-70. Ford initially claimed that she became disabled in 2005, but at the hearing before the ALJ she amended her onset date to March 31, 2015. She asserts that she became unable to work because of chronic sinusitis, migraine headaches, and chronic severe pain. Doc. 8 at 4; Tr. at 18.

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of 18, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is, the claimant is not disabled, and the evaluation ends. Id. If she is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the claimant's physical and mental impairments in combination. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled. Id. The decision depends upon the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairments fall within this category, she will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) will be made, and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant still can do her past relevant work, she is not disabled, and the evaluation ends. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The Commissioner bears the burden of demonstrating that other jobs exist that the claimant can perform, and once that burden is met the claimant must prove her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found to be disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ford has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from the date of onset through the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr. at 17 & 24. The ALJ first determined that Ford meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2020. Tr. at 18. She next found that Ford has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2015, the amended alleged onset date. Tr. at 18. According to the ALJ, Ford's sinusitis and migraines are “severe” as defined by the requirements set forth in the regulations. Tr. at 18-19. She further determined that Ford had non-severe impairments of: a history of herpes, gastro esophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), obesity, status post fixation of broken finger left hand, and status post herpes simplex virus meningitis. Tr. at 19. Finally, the ALJ found that the thyroid dysfunction and affective disorder claimed by Ford were not medically determinable impairments because there was a lack of objective medical evidence to support the existence of the impairments. Tr. at 19.

         The ALJ found that Ford does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that either meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. at 19-20. The ALJ determined that Ford's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence or other evidence in the record.” Tr. at 22.

         The ALJ determined that Ford has the RFC to perform medium work “except that she can frequently climb ramps and stairs; she should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can have occasional exposure to extremes of heat and cold, humidity, and atmospheric conditions (i.e. dusts, odors, fumes, pulmonary irritants); [and] she should have no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery.” Tr. at 20.

         At the fourth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that Ford is able to perform her past relevant work as an appointment clerk, account clerk, and loan clerk in the way those jobs generally are performed. Tr. at 22. The ALJ considered the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), and alternatively determined that, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the plaintiff can perform, such as sandwich maker, hand packager, and grocery bagger. Tr. at 23. The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that the plaintiff is not disabled under Section 1520(f) of the Social Security Act. Tr. at 24.


         This court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 & 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). 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) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439-40 (11th Cir. 1997)). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with some measure of deference but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court should not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. F. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No. decision is automatic, however, for “despite this deferential standard [of review] it is imperative that the Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).


         Ford alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because (1) the ALJ improperly disregarded the opinion of Ford's treating physician, Dr. Bradford Woodworth; and (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated the plaintiff's complaints of pain under the Eleventh Circuit's pain standard. Doc. 8. The Commissioner responds that any failure to discuss the opinion evidence of Dr. Woodworth was harmless error because the ALJ found that the plaintiff could perform her past relevant work.[1] The Commissioner further asserts that the evaluation of the plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain was proper. Doc. 9.

         A. Weight Assigned to the Treating ...

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