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Reeves v. Saul

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

September 18, 2019

TAMMY JEANEASE REEVES, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), Tammy Jeanease Reeves seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Reeves’s claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Ms. Reeves also has moved to remand. (Doc. 12). For the reasons stated below, the Court denies Ms. Reeves’s motion and affirms the Commissioner’s decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Reeves applied for disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. (Doc. 6-3, p. 11; Doc. 6-4, pp. 22, 23). Ms. Reeves alleges that her disability began August 15, 2014. (Doc. 6-3, p. 11; Doc. 6-4, pp. 21, 23). She was working at the time, but her work “did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 13). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Reeves’s claim. (Doc. 6-3, p. 11; Doc. 6-4, p. 22, ¶ 19; Doc. 6-4, p. 23, ¶ 19). Ms. Reeves requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-3, p. 11; Doc. 6-5, p. 11). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 11, 23-24). The Appeals Council declined Ms. Reeves’s request for review (Doc. 6-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner’s decision final for this Court’s judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Ms. Reeves previously applied for benefits and claimed disability beginning on April 1, 2011. (Doc. 6-3, p. 40). Another ALJ determined on a record substantially similar to the record in this case that Ms. Reeves was not disabled. (Doc. 6-3, p. 21). That previous ALJ found that Ms. Reeves’s pain testimony was inconsistent with her pain reports to physicians. Those reports never exceeded five on a ten-point scale. In addition, there was no information in Ms. Reeves’s medical records to confirm her complaints of side effects from her medication. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 50-51). The district court affirmed that ALJ’s decision. Reeves v. Colvin (Reeves I), No. 4:14-CV-01970-RDP, 2016 WL 778029 (N.D. Ala. Feb. 29, 2016); (Doc. 6-3, pp. 39-54). The Court discusses below the significance of this earlier determination as it pertains to Ms. Reeves’s current appeal.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ’s ‘factual findings with deference’ and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.’” Riggs v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s findings.” Costigan v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ’s legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ’s application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ’S DECISION

         To determine whether a claimant has proven that she is disabled, an ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process. The ALJ considers:

(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Reeves meets the insured status requirements through June 30, 2016. (Doc. 6-3, p. 11). Ms. Reeves has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Doc. 6-3, p. 13). The ALJ determined that Ms. Reeves suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, obesity, and depression. (Doc. 6-3, p. 13). The ALJ found that Ms. Reeves suffers from the following non-severe impairments: gastroesophageal reflux disease, anxiety, and hypertension. (Doc. 6-3, p. 14). Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ found that Ms. Reeves does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 6-3, p. 14).

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Reeves has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a) subject to the following limitations:

no following complex instructions or procedures; no climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; no working at unprotected heights or with hazardous machinery; occasionally stooping, crouching balancing, crawling, kneeling, and climbing of ramps or stairs; no interacting frequently with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public; occasionally using foot controls bilaterally; and avoiding concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold, or vibrations.

(Doc. 6-3, p. 17). “Sedentary work involves lifting no more than 10 pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a). “Jobs are sedentary if walking and standing are required occasionally and other sedentary criteria are met.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a); 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a).

         The ALJ concluded that Ms. Reeves cannot perform her past relevant work. (Doc. 6-3, p. 22). Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that other jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Reeves can perform, including surveillance system monitor, cuff folder, and lens inserter. (Doc. 6-3, p. 23). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Reeves has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 23-24).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Motion to Remand

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)’s sentences four and six, Ms. Reeves asks the Court to remand this matter so that the ALJ may consider a favorable decision on her most recent benefits application and a January 2018 medical source statement. (Doc. 12; Docs. 12-1, 12-2). “Under sentence four, a district court may remand in conjunction with a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the Secretary’s decision.” Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89, 98 (1991). Ms. Reeves asks the Court to remand before reaching a substantive decision, so sentence four does not provide a vehicle for remand. 501 U.S. at 98.

         A district court may remand under § 405(g)’s sentence six if a claimant offers “new, noncumulative evidence . . . [that] is ‘material, ’ that is, relevant and probative so that there is a reasonable possibility that it would change the administrative result[.]” Caulder v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 872, 877 (11th Cir. 1986). Additionally, a claimant must demonstrate “good cause for the failure to submit the evidence at the administrative level.” Caulder, 791 F.2d at 877.

         In Hunter v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 808 F.3d 818, 822 (11th Cir. 2015), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a favorable decision on a subsequent benefits application “is not evidence for § 405(g) purposes.” The Eleventh Circuit reasoned:

Faced with the same record, different ALJs could disagree with one another based on their respective credibility determinations and how each weighs the evidence. Both decisions could nonetheless be supported by evidence that reasonable minds would accept as adequate. The mere existence of a later favorable decision by one ALJ does not undermine the validity of another ALJ’s earlier unfavorable decision or the factfindings upon which it was premised.

Hunter, 808 F.3d at 822. Consequently, Ms. Reeves cannot rely on her recent favorable determination to support a sentence six remand.

         A new consultative report may warrant a sentence six remand if it meets the Caulder requirements. (Doc. 14, pp. 6, 7). The report that Ms. Reeves offers, Dr. Oguntuyo’s 2018 report, does not indicate that Ms. Reeves’s functional impairments existed prior to the ALJ’s 2017 determination in this case. See Watts ex rel. A.W. v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 4:11-CV-02625-RDP, 2012 WL 2358160, at *3 (N.D. Ala. June 15, 2012) (denying motion to remand because the new evidence did not relate to the disability period that the ALJ considered); cf. Caulder, 791 F.2d at 877-78 (“The [new] evidence also contains a medical opinion on the presence of the impairment during the time period for which benefits are sought.”).[2] Because Dr. Oguntuyo’s report does not provide information that establishes a reasonability probability of a different administrative result, it does not warrant remand.

         B. The Appeal

         Ms. Reeves argues that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ’s decision because the ALJ did not properly evaluate the side effects of her pain medication under the Eleventh Circuit pain standard or provide reasons for discrediting the consultative opinions of Dr. Daniel Prince and Dr. Jane Teschner. (Doc. 9, p. 2). Additionally, Ms. Reeves maintains that the ALJ did not pose an accurate hypothetical question to the vocational expert. (Doc. 9, pp. 2, 35). This Court affirms because substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision that Ms. Reeves is not disabled. The Court begins its analysis with the side effects issue.

         Side Effects

         The Eleventh Circuit pain standard “applies when a disability claimant attempts to establish disability through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991); Coley v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 18-11954, 2019 WL 1975989, at *3 (11th Cir. May 3, 2019). When relying upon subjective symptoms to establish disability, “the claimant must satisfy two parts of a three-part test showing: (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition; and (2) either (a) objective medical evidence confirming the severity of the alleged [symptoms]; or (b) that the objectively determined medical condition can reasonably be expected to give rise to the claimed [symptoms].” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223); Chatham v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 18-11708, 2019 WL 1758438, at *2 (11th Cir. ...


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