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Gossett v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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

August 12, 2019

PAMELA GOSSETT, Plaintiff
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Pamela Gossett seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of an adverse, final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), regarding her claim for Supplemental Security Income. The undersigned carefully considered the record, and for the reasons expressed herein, AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.[1]

         LAW AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish entitlement for a period of disability, the claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations define “disabled” as the “inability to do 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 twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         In determining whether a claimant suffers a disability, the Commissioner, through an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The burden rests upon the claimant on the first four steps of this five-step process; the Commissioner sustains the burden at step five, if the evaluation proceeds that far. Washington v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359 (11th Cir. 2018).

         In the first step, the claimant cannot be currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove the impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits [the] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” Id. at § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the evaluator must conclude the claimant is disabled if the impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.02. Id. at § 404.1520(d). If a claimant's impairment meets the applicable criteria at this step, that claimant's impairments would prevent any person from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1525, 416.920(a)(4)(iii). That is, a claimant who satisfies steps one and two qualifies automatically for disability benefits if the claimant suffers a listed impairment. See Williams v. Astrue, 416 Fed.Appx. 861, 862 (11th Cir. 2011) (“If, at the third step, [the claimant] proves that [an] impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, [the claimant] is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step where the claimant demonstrates an incapacity to meet the physical and mental demands of past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At this step, the evaluator must determine whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent performance of past relevant work, the evaluator will determine the claimant is not disabled. See id.

         If the claimant is successful at the preceding step, the fifth step shifts the burden to the Commissioner to provide evidence, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education and past work experience, that the claimant is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(g). If the claimant can perform other work, the evaluator will not find the claimant disabled. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the claimant cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         The court reviews the ALJ's “‛decision with deference to the factual findings and close scrutiny of the legal conclusions.'” Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm'r, Social Sec. Admin., 783 F.3d 847, 850 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). The court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). Although the court must “scrutinize the record as a whole . . . to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence, ” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted), the court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citations omitted). Nonetheless, substantial evidence exists even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ determined at step one that Gossett had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of May 30, 2014, through the date of the ALJ's opinion, June 12, 2017. (Tr. 12). At step two, the ALJ found that Gossett suffers the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, diverticulitis, mild scoliosis, alcohol abuse, major depressive disorder, and panic disorder with agoraphobia. Id. At step three, the ALJ concluded that Gossett's impairment or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal any impairment for presumptive disability listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 13).

         Next, the ALJ found that Gossett exhibited the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) but with certain limitations.[2](Tr. 14-15). At step four, the ALJ found that Gossett could not perform her past relevant work as a teacher for the emotionally disturbed or intellectually disabled. (Tr. 20). At step five, the ALJ relied upon a vocational expert to conclude the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as machine tender, marker, and cleaner. (Tr. 21).

         On February 27, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, which deems the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. (Tr. 1-3). On May 1, 2018, Gossett filed her complaint with the court seeking review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 1).

         ANALYSIS

         In this appeal, Gossett contends substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision because he failed to conduct a proper analysis of her fibromyalgia impairment. She faults the ALJ for allegedly rejecting fibromyalgia as a disabling severe impairment; therewith, the ALJ failed to assess any limitations arising from to her fibromyalgia. In addition, Gossett contends that proper delineation of the fibromyalgia impairment would have engendered evaluations at step three whether her condition equaled Listing 14.09D.[3] The court finds substantial evidence supports the ALJ's opinion regarding the fibromyalgia assessment.

         I. The ALJ Properly Assessed Gossett's Fibromyalgia and Any Limitations Therefrom

         Gossett contends the ALJ erred by rejecting her fibromyalgia diagnosis as a severe impairment and treating it “somehow not medically proven.” (Doc. 15 at 15, 16).[4]Admittedly, the ALJ's decision obscures the findings on this issue. Although the ALJ includes fibromyalgia as a severe impairment at step two of his analysis, (Tr. 12), he discredits the diagnosis at step four in finding that the evaluation did not satisfy the applicable assessment for the condition. (Tr. 17).

         Gossett's challenge still misses the mark, however. First, the prevailing regulatory standard does not support the propriety of the fibromyalgia diagnosis, as countenanced by the ALJ. Second, the ALJ included fibromyalgia as a severe impairment in the RFC he constructed.

         A. Gossett's Fibromyalgia Diagnosis Does Not Satisfy SSR 12-2p

         Gossett faults the ALJ for rejecting her fibromyalgia diagnosis due to the absence of at least 11 tender points depicting the presence of the condition. However, the ALJ properly relied on SSR 12-2p's requirements to find Gossett's fibromyalgia did not render her disabled, and substantial evidence supports his determination.

         SSR 12-2p governs the assessment whether a claimant suffers a fibromyalgia impairment. See SSR 12-2p, 2012 WL 3104869 (July 25, 2012).[5] When an ALJ determines fibromyalgia constitutes an impairment, SSR 12-2p directs the ALJ to evaluate the intensity and persistence of the claimant's pain or any other symptoms and determine the extent to which the symptoms limit the claimant's capacity for work.

         SSR 12-2p states the Social Security Administration “will find that a person has an MDI [medically determinable impairment] of FM [fibromyalgia] if the physician diagnosed FM and provides the evidence we describe in section II.A. or section II.B., and the physician's diagnosis is not inconsistent with the other evidence in the person's case record.” SSR 12-2p, 2012 WL 3104869, at *2. Sections II.A and II.B include two sets of criteria for diagnosing fibromyalgia -- the 1990 American College of ...


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