United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
25, 2016, the claimant, Vanessa Collier, protectively applied
for disability and disability insurance benefits under Titles
II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (R. 60). The claimant
initially alleged disability commencing on December 1, 2004
because of multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, back problems,
celiac disease, varicose veins, swelling of her hands and
feet, numbness in her hands and feet, and a ruptured disc in
her neck. (R. 60). The claimant later amended her alleged
onset date to April 30, 2015. (R. 40). The Commissioner
denied the claim on September 9, 2016. (R. 96). The claimant
filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on November 6, 2017.
decision dated January 24, 2018, the ALJ found that the
claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security
Act and was, therefore, ineligible for social security
benefits. (R. 24). On May 16, 2018, the Appeals Council
denied the claimant's request for review. Consequently,
the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (R. 1-3).
The claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and
this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated
below, this court reverses and remands the decision of the
Commissioner to the ALJ for reconsideration.
the ALJ erred in evaluating the claimant's allegations of
pain and other limiting effects of her symptoms under the
Eleventh Circuit's pain standard
STANDARD OF REVIEW
standard for reviewing the Commissioner's decision is
limited. This court must affirm the Commissioner's
decision if the Commissioner applied the correct legal
standards and if his factual conclusions are supported by
substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir.
1997); Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir.
. . . presumption of validity attaches to the
[Commissioner's] legal conclusions, including
determination of the proper standards to be applied in
evaluating claims.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999.
This court does not review the Commissioner's factual
determinations de novo. The court will affirm those
factual determinations that are supported by substantial
evidence. “Substantial evidence” is “more
than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 401 (1971).
court must keep in mind that opinions, such as whether a
claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a
claimant's residual functional capacity, and the
application of vocational factors, “are not medical
opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved
to the Commissioner because they are administrative findings
that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the
determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d). Whether the claimant
meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security
disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and
the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the
evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the
Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to
disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain
facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long
as substantial evidence in the record supports it.
court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to
determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner]'s
factual findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. A
reviewing court must not only look to those parts of the
record that support the decision of the ALJ, but also must
view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence
that detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ.
Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179, 1180 (11th Cir.
evaluating pain and other subjective complaints, the
Commissioner must consider whether the claimant presented
“‘evidence of an underlying medical
condition' and either ‘objective medical evidence
that confirms the severity of the alleged pain [or other
subjective symptoms] arising from that condition' or
‘that the objectively determined medical condition is
of such severity that it can be reasonably expected to give
rise to the alleged pain [or other subjective
symptoms].'” Taylor v. Acting Comm'r of
Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 18-11978, 2019 WL 581548, at *2
(11th Cir. Feb. 13, 2019) (quoting Dyer, 395 F.3d at
1210); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; SSR
16-3p. When evaluating a claimant's
subjective symptoms, the ALJ considers all available
evidence, including objective medical evidence; the
claimant's daily activities; the type, dosage, and
effectiveness of medications taken to alleviate the symptoms;
and factors that precipitate and aggravate the symptoms. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(3); SSR 16-3p. “Subjective
pain testimony that is supported by objective medical
evidence of a condition that can reasonably be expected to
produce the symptoms of which the claimant complains is
itself sufficient to sustain a finding of disability.”
Taylor v. Colvin, No. 2:15-CV-1925-VEH, 2016 WL
6610442, at *4 (N.D. Ala. Nov. 9, 2016) (quoting Hale v.
Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987). And the
claimant's statements about intensity, persistence, or
limiting effects of symptoms will not be rejected solely
because objective medical evidence does not substantiate
those statements. 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(2); SSR 16-3p.
ALJ decides to discredit the claimant's testimony as to
her pain, he must “‘clearly articulate explicit
and adequate reasons' for doing so.”
Taylor, 2019 WL 581548, at *2 (quoting
Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210). The ALJ's failure to
articulate reasons for discrediting the claimant's
testimony is reversible error. Ellis v. Soc. Sec. Admin.,
Comm'r, No. 4:18-cv-00010-SGC, 2019 WL 1776805, at
*5 (N.D. Ala. Apr. 23, 2019).
substantial evidence must support the ALJ's findings
regarding the limiting effects of the claimant's
symptoms. Meehan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No.
18-14924, 2019 WL 2417642, at *3 (11th Cir. Jun. 10, 2019);
Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1012 (11th Cir. 1987).
Therefore, the ALJ's determination must contain explicit
reasons for the weight given to a claimant's individual
symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence,
and be clearly articulated so the claimant and any subsequent
reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the
individual's symptoms. SSR 16-3p. A reviewing court will
not disturb a clearly articulated credibility finding that
has supporting substantial evidence in the record. Rose
v. Berryhill, No. 6:18-cv-00030-LCB, 2019 WL 2514936, at
*9 (N.D. Ala. Jun. 18, 2019) (citing Foote v.
Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1562 (11th Cir. 1995).
claimant was fifty-six years old at the time of the ALJ's
final decision. The claimant has a high school education and
past relevant work as a housekeeper and waitress/cashier. The
claimant alleges disability based on multiple sclerosis,
fibromyalgia, back problems, celiac disease, varicose veins,
swelling of legs and feet, numbness in her hands and legs,
and a ruptured disc in her neck. (R. 24, 45-46, 60).
December of 2009, the claimant first saw Dr. Elson at the
Kirklin Clinic as a consultation for her celiac disease that
had been diagnosed in September 2009. Dr. Elson noted that
the claimant complained of constant pain in her abdomen,
intermittent nausea and vomiting, and alternating days of
diarrhea and constipation. The claimant reported that she had
“been trying very hard to stay on a gluten-free
diet” to alleviate her celiac disease symptoms but felt
as though the gluten-free diet had worsened her pain,
constipation, and diarrhea. Dr. Elson determined that a
repeat colonoscopy with biopsies was appropriate given the
severity of the claimant's symptoms despite her
gluten-free diet; the colonoscopy showed normal results. (R.
23, 2010, the claimant saw Dr. Brockington at the Kirklin
Clinic after an initial evaluation of her paresthesias in May
2010, which resulted in a diagnosis of underlying peripheral
neuropathy because of her celiac disease. The claimant
reported pain at a level of seven out of ten. Her physical
exam indicated a marked loss of vibratory sensation in her
upper and lower extremities, decreased deep tendon reflexes,
mild weakness in her hand grips, and subtle atrophy of her
thenar muscle regions. On July 12, 2010, doctors at the
University of Alabama at Birmingham admitted the claimant for
an IVIG infusion to alleviate her peripheral neuropathy
symptoms; however, the claimant reported the IVIG did not
improve her symptoms. (R. 262, 265, 268).
30, 2012, the claimant saw Dr. Brockington again because her
balance had not improved and she could not work because of
risk of falling and injury. Additionally, the claimant stated
that her celiac disease had not improved despite her strict
adherence to a gluten-free diet. Dr. Brockington noted that
the claimant's gait was ataxic and she could not tandem
walk. On October 19, 2013, Dr. Brockington wrote a letter
“To Whom It May Concern” stating that the
claimant's neurological symptoms of peripheral neuropathy
had persisted despite treatment and consequently resulted in
significant impairments including pain, weakness, and
impaired balance. In this letter, Dr. Brockington stated that
he believed the claimant qualified for long term disability.
(R. 254, 268-69).
claimant returned to Dr. Brockington on May 15, 2014 with
complaints of limb pain and paresthesia. Dr. Brockington
noted that the claimant's paresthesia worsened with
increased activity and affected the claimant's balance.
Dr. Brockington also noted the claimant's joint pain,
muscle pain, decreased range of motion, abnormal balance,
numbness, and tingling. Dr. Brockington then diagnosed the
claimant with unspecified idiopathic peripheral neuropathy.
January 2015 to October 2017, the claimant regularly visited
Dr. Wiley Livingston at the Medical West Bessemer Clinic for
treatment of her impairments. On January 8, 2015, Dr.
Livingston noted the claimant had a history of multiple
sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and celiac disease, and the claimant
described symptoms of back pain, joint pain, joint stiffness,
muscle aches, and sleep disturbances. The physical
examination of the claimant was normal except mild diffuse
tenderness of her abdomen. Dr. Livingston also mentioned that
the claimant took Percocet and received epidural blocks for
pain. (R. 328, 330-31).
April 30, 2015, the claimant visited Dr. Livingston with
complaints of chronic pain “all over, ” numbness
in her hands and feet, sleep disturbances, depressed mood,
and anxiety. The physical examination of the claimant was
normal. Dr. Livingston renewed the claimant's
prescription for Percocet and increased her Cymbalta dose.
Two months later, the claimant visited Dr. Livingston with
complaints of pain in both of her legs because of her
varicose veins, which had been occurring constantly for two
weeks. The claimant rated her pain at a level of nine out of
ten. Although the claimant lacked tenderness of her skin upon
examination, Dr. Livingston still recommended the claimant
wear support stockings. The claimant's physical
examination was normal, but the doctor did not examine the
claimant's extremities, back, or spine. Dr. Livingston
renewed the claimant's prescription for Percocet. (R.
308, 310-11, 313, 315-17).
a month later, on August 6, 2015, the claimant again sought
treatment from Dr. Livingston with complaints of neck pain
and back pain that radiated down her right leg. The claimant
had received a cervical epidural block in June 2015 at
Brookwood Medical Center, but the block only “helped
some.” Dr. Livingston noted that the claimant had to
push her husband's wheelchair, which aggravated her
symptoms, but the claimant's physical examination was
normal. Consequently, Dr. Livingston injected the
claimant's sacroiliac joints with 120 milligrams of
depo-medrol to decrease her inflammation and prescribed
alendronate to treat her osteoporosis. Additionally, Dr.
Livingston continued to prescribe Percocet for the claimant.
(R. 302, 304-06).
previous visit on October 27, 2015 to see Dr. Livingston for
problems related to her gastrointestinal issues, the claimant
saw Dr. Livingston on November 23, 2015 with complaints of
tailbone pain after falling down her steps six days prior.
The physical examination only reviewed the claimant's
vital signs, but Dr. Livingston noted she moved stiffly and
diagnosed her with sacral back pain. Dr. Livingston continued
to prescribe Percocet for the claimant. (R. 292-295).
later on May 23, 2016, the claimant visited Dr. Livingston
with complaints of aching, burning sharp pain and tenderness
of her left breast which started a month prior, occurred
three to four times a day, and lasted anywhere from thirty
minutes to three to four hours. Likewise, the claimant
reported that she has had multiple breakdowns since her
husband's death on May 1, 2016, coupled with panic
attacks, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and blood in her stool.
The physical examination was normal except tenderness with
palpation of the claimant's left breast, but no