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Williams v. Saul

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

September 23, 2019

AMY MICHELLE WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On April 22, 2015, the claimant, Amy Michelle Williams, applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (R. 15). In her application, the claimant alleged disability beginning on January 20, 2015 because of lumbar degenerative disc disease, piriformis syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, obesity, and obstructive sleep apnea. (R.18). The Commissioner denied the claim on June 29, 2015. (R. 15). The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and the ALJ held a hearing on March 29, 2017. (R. 30).

         In a decision dated April 26, 2017, the ALJ found that the claimant was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and was thus ineligible for social security disability benefits. (R. 12-23). On February 16, 2018, the Appeals Council denied the claimant’s request for review. (R. 1-6). Consequently, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The claimant has exhausted her administrative remedies, and the court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, the court will affirm the Commissioner’s decision.

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED

         The claimant presents two issues for review:

(1) Whether the ALJ erred as a matter of law in discrediting the claimant’s subjective testimony concerning the limitations caused by her migraines, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, and obesity when evaluating her residual functional capacity; and
(2) Whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding that the claimant could return to her past work despite the vocational expert testifying that, based on the claimant’s RFC, the claimant could not perform her past work.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard for reviewing the Commissioner’s decision is limited. The court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision if he applied the correct legal standards and if substantial evidence supports his factual conclusions. 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. 1987).

         “No . . . 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. The 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, 402 (1971).

         The Commissioner’s opinions on whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant’s RFC, 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 a 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.

         The court must “scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [ALJ]’s factual findings.” Walker, 826 F.2d at 999. The court must not only look to those parts of the record that support the ALJ’s decision, 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. 1986).

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when she is unable 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 . . . .” To determine whether a claimant meets the § 423(d)(1)(A) criteria, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process:

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person’s impairment severe?
(3) Does the person’s impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpart P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on step three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of “not disabled.”

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The Eleventh Circuit has established a three-part “pain standard” that the ALJ must apply “when a claimant attempts to establish disability through his or her own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.” Holt v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1221, 1223 (11th Cir. 1991). “The pain standard requires (1) evidence of an underlying medical condition and either (2) objective medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged pain arising from that condition or (3) that the objectively determined medical condition is of such a severity that it can be reasonably expected ...


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