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Uptain v. Berryhill

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

August 12, 2019

SHERI UPTAIN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Sheri Uptain (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”). See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). Based on this court's review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.

         I. Proceedings Below

         Plaintiff filed her application for SSI on September 1, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of June 19, 2015. (R. 55). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the initial request on December 18, 2015. (R. 69). Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (R. 77), and ALJ David L. Horton held a hearing on July 31, 2017. (R. 1). In his decision dated December 29, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (R. 36). Because the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 18, 2018, which was the final decision of the Commissioner (R. 19-21), the Commissioner's decision is now a proper subject for this court's appellate review.

         II. Statement of Facts

         Plaintiff, who was born on June 26, 1972, was 43-years-old when she filed her request for SSI and 44 at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 5, 171). She has a high school diploma and held two relevant jobs over fifteen years: billing clerk and cosmetic sales consultant. (R. 6, 34). The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from several severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, depression, scoliosis, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. (R. 30).

         The issues on appeal concern Plaintiff's obesity and subjective pain regarding her lower back and lower extremities. (Pl.'s Mem., Doc. # 11 at 9-13). The record indicates that Plaintiff first reported back pain radiating into her lower left extremity and sciatica in October 2012; as a result, the physician prescribed medication for muscle spasms and pain. (R. 225). The next four years of medical history tell the same story: Plaintiff visited the doctor for back and leg pain and was re-prescribed the medication. (R. 190, 212, 249, 272, 311, 314, 321, 398). These visits evidence that Plaintiff consistently had full range of motion in her musculoskeletal system. (R. 230, 249, 359, 373). In October 2015, Plaintiff received an x-ray examination. (R. 305-06). The impression of the results was that Plaintiff has only eleven rib-bearing thoracic vertebral bodies, multilevel degenerative disc disease (L3 through L5 levels), a set of hypoplastic ribs, and scoliosis. (R. 305-06).

         In addition, during the period at issue in this case, Plaintiff (who has struggled with weight), put on a substantial amount of weight. To illustrate, Plaintiff weighed 160 pounds at her October 2012 visit to Walker Baptist Medical Center (R. 230), and, in October 2013, Plaintiff weighed 131 pounds. (R. 249). By her October 6, 2015 visit to Capstone Rural Health Center, Plaintiff weighed 226 pounds, which results in a body mass index (“BMI”) of 40.1. (R. 310).[1]At the time, the physician recommended weight loss and consulted Plaintiff on her diet and maintaining regular exercise. (R. 314-15). Plaintiff returned to Capstone Rural eight times (and the physician continued to consult her about weight loss) until her final visit in the record on November 9, 2016. (R. 310, 410, 412, 414, 416, 418, 421, 423). At this visit, Plaintiff weighed 198 pounds, and her BMI measured 35.1. (R. 410).

         During the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she takes ibuprofen and Flexeril for her back pain. (R. 8). More recently, after picking up a four-pound laundry basket, Plaintiff visited the emergency room where she received morphine and a Norflex shot. (R. 8-9). On typical days, if she gets out of bed, Plaintiff's day consists of sitting around and walking for a few minutes until her pain begins. (R. 10). Plaintiff estimates that she lies down for 22 hours a day. (R. 10). Plaintiff does not do housework, nor does she drive anymore as a result of her pain. (R. 10).

         III. ALJ Decision

         Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial work activity” involves significant physical or mental activities, and “gainful work activity” is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id.

         Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. When the claimant meets these criteria, the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still hold that the claimant is disabled after the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which refers to the claimant's ability to work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Then, in the fourth step, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not ...

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