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Pritchett v. Berryhill

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

August 28, 2019

DONNIE PRITCHETT, Plaintiff
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND DISMISSAL ORDER

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR., UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Donnie Pritchett 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 his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. The undersigned carefully considered the record, and for the reasons expressed herein, AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         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 found at step one that Pritchett met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018. (Tr. 18). The ALJ further found Pritchett had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 12, 2013, the alleged onset date, through his date last insured of December 31, 2018. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that Pritchett suffers the following severe impairments: congestive obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD); polycythemia vera; hypertension; non-insulin-dependent diabetes; degenerative arthritis in the lumbar spine; unspecified depressive disorder; and mild intellectual disability. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Pritchett'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. 18-19).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Pritchett exhibited no past relevant work through the date last insured. (Tr. 25). The ALJ proceeded to step five, finding that, through the date last insured, Pritchett exhibited the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with certain limitations.[1] (Tr. 22). The ALJ relied on the VE's testimony to conclude Pritchett could perform such jobs as a sorter, an assembler, or a cashier. (Tr. 26).

         On May 21, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, which deems the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. (Tr. 1). On July 25, 2018, Pritchett filed his complaint with the court seeking review of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 1).

         ANALYSIS

         In this appeal, Mr. Pritchett contends substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's decision. Specifically, he faults the ALJ for: (1) providing inadequate reasoning for discounting Pritchett's subjective complaints regarding the severity of his pain symptoms; and (2) failing to accord substantial weight to the treating physician's opinion. After consideration of the record and the ALJ's decision, the court finds substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination.

         A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Pritchett's Subjective Complaints and Properly Applied the Pain Standard

         “To establish 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 Soc. 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).

         Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p, effective March 28, 2016, eliminates the use of the term “credibility” as it relates to assessing the claimant's complaints of pain and clarifies that the ALJ “will consider any personal observations of the individual in terms of how consistent those observations are with the individual's statements about his or her symptoms as well as with all of the evidence in the file.” SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, *7 (Mar. 16, 2016). An ALJ rendering findings regarding a claimant's subjective symptoms may consider a variety of factors, including: the claimant's daily activities; symptom location, duration, frequency, and intensity; precipitating and aggravating factors; type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication taken to alleviate the symptoms; and other factors concerning functional limitations and restrictions due to symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), (4), 416.939(c)(3), (4).

         SSR 16-3p further explains that the ALJ's decision “must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent review can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.” 2016 WL 1119020 at *9; see also Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225 (if an ALJ discredits a ...


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