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Rutledge v. Berryhill

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

August 19, 2019

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Decembrea Labron Rutledge brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her Supplemental Social Security (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1).[1] The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). (Doc. 10). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be remanded.


         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and SSI on July 13, 2015, and July 30, 2015, respectively, alleging disability beginning July 13, 2015. (R. 15, 160-72).[2] After her applications were denied initially, (R. 90-96), Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (R. 99-100). After the video hearing, the ALJ issued a decision on December 11, 2017, finding Plaintiff not disabled. (R. 15-27). Plaintiff then filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, and the Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 1-6). The matter is properly before this court.

         II. FACTS

         Plaintiff was born on March 9, 1982, and was thirty-three years old at the time she filed her applications. (R. 25, 160, 167). She has a seventh grade education. (R. 25, 38). In her applications, she alleges that she became disabled as of July 13, 2015, as a result of asthma, breathing problems, and costochondritis.[3] (R. 160, 167, 255). Sometime after filing her applications, she also alleged disability on account of bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (R. 19, 37).

         Following Plaintiff's administrative hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date of July 13, 2015. (R. 18). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the medically determinable severe impairments of asthma, anxiety disorder, PTSD and bipolar disorder. (Id.). She also found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (Id. at 18-22). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

[S]he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop and crouch; she should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, kneel or crawl; she can have only occasional exposure to extreme heat and cold, humidity at atmospheric conditions (dust, odors, fumes, pulmonary irritants). She should have no exposure to hazards such an unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. She would be capable of performing simple, routine tasks in an environment where there are only occasional workplace changes and where contact with supervisors, co-workers or the general public is occasional.

(R. 22). Based on this RFC and the testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work as a chicken eviscerator. (R. 25). Given her age, education and RFC, however, the ALJ found that she could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 25-26). Therefore, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled from July 13, 2015, through the date of the decision. (Id. at 26).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Mitchell v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2015); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). 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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991). The court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if other evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. See Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir.1990)).


         To qualify for benefits a claimant must show the inability to engage in “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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) & 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 Fed.Appx. 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014).[4] The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.704. The applicable “regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Id.

         V. DISCUSSION

         Although not organized in this manner, Plaintiff essentially asserts three claims of error by the ALJ: (1) the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to Plaintiff's treating physicians and failed to show good cause for discounting their opinions, (doc. 11 at 25-29); (2) the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff's asthma does not meet Listing 3.03, (id. at 36-37); and (3) the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence, is conclusory and violates SSR 96-8p, (id. at 30-36). The court addresses each argument in turn and remands on the basis of the third argument.

         A. Treating Physician Opinions

         Plaintiff's first argument is that the ALJ erred in discounting the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. McCain, and her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Feist. (Doc. 11 at 25-29). Plaintiff contends that the opinions of both doctors were well supported by the medical records and should have been given substantial weight. (Id. at 28). Additionally, Plaintiff seems to argue that the ALJ did not clearly articulate the reasons for giving less weight to her treating physicians.[5] (Id. at 28-29).

         A treating physician's opinion “must be given substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause' is shown to the contrary.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir.1997). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has stated that “good cause” exists when the: (1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004). In rejecting a medical opinion, the ALJ must clearly articulate his or her reasons for doing so. Id. The court first addresses the opinion of Dr. McCain and then moves on the opinion of Dr. Feist.

         1. ...

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