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Chandler v. Saul

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

October 15, 2019

JEANETTE CHANDLER, 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), plaintiff Jeanette Chandler seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision by the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Chandler's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. After careful consideration of the record, the Court remands for additional proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Chandler applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Doc. 6-3, p. 15; Doc. 6-4, pp. 36, 37). Ms. Chandler alleges that her disability began on November 23, 2015. (Doc. 6-3, p. 15; Doc. 6-3, p. 37).[2] The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Chandler's claims. (Doc. 6-3, p. 15; Doc. 6-4, pp. 36, 37). Ms. Chandler requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-3, p. 15; Doc. 6-5, pp. 10-11). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 15-27). The Appeals Council declined Ms. Chandler's request for review (Doc. 6-3, p. 2), making the Commissioner's decision final for appellate review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c).

         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 factual findings. “Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this Court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Costigan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (same). In evaluating the administrative record, 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 quotation marks and citation omitted).

         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 ordinarily 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.

         Here, the ALJ found that Ms. Chandler met the insured status requirements for disability insurance benefits through December 31, 2015. (Doc. 6-3, p. 17). Ms. Chandler had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 23, 2015, the alleged amended onset date. (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ determined that Ms. Chandler suffered from five severe impairments: obesity, osteoarthritis, asthma, anxiety, and depression. (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ determined that Ms. Chandler's hypertension and residual symptoms from a 2017 car accident were non-severe impairments. (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). Based on his review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Chandler did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Doc. 6-3, p. 18).

         Given these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Chandler had the RFC to “perform light work” with the following exceptions:

The claimant is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; perform around hazards; perform commercial driving; or perform in concentrated exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures, wetness, humidity, or environments of fumes, odors, dust, gases, poor ventilation, etc. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. The claimant can understand and remember simple instructions. The claimant can carry out simple instructions and sustain attention to routine or familiar tasks for extended periods. The claimant should have no production quota and should avoid rapid changes and multiple demands. Any contact with the public or co-workers should be no more than occasional and brief (no more than 30 minutes at one time). The claimant can accept and respond to feedback that is supportive and can adapt to infrequent, well explained changes in the work setting expectations.

(Doc. 6-3, p. 21). Based on this RFC and vocational expert testimony, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Chandler could not perform her past relevant work as a fast food worker and house cleaner. (Doc. 6-3, p. 25). Relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines and expert testimony, the ALJ found that Ms. Chandler was capable of doing light jobs including cashier II, power screwdriver operator, and marker. (Doc. 6-3, p. 26). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Chandler was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, p. 27).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Chandler challenges the ALJ's RFC determination. (Doc. 8, p. 4). An RFC “is an assessment, based on all relevant medical and other evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to work despite his impairment.” Castle v. Colvin, 557 Fed.Appx. 849, 852 (11th Cir. 2014). The ALJ determined that despite her physical and mental impairments, Ms. Chandler could perform a reduced range of light work. Under the Social Security regulations, “light work”:

involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, we determine that he or she can also do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to sit for long periods of time.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). In the RFC for light work, the ALJ placed no limit on Ms. Chandler's ability to stand and walk or her need for breaks. See p. 5, above; (Doc. 6-3, p. 24).

         At the administrative hearing, Ms. Chandler testified that she can stand for only ten minutes at a time. (Doc. 6-3, p. 45). Dr. Ashley Holdridge, a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) who Ms. Chandler saw in January 2015 for a consultative physical examination, limited Ms. Chandler's ability to stand and walk “to four hours with frequent breaks.” (Doc. 6-11, pp. 95, 99).[3] Ms. Chandler's testimony about her ability to stand and Dr. Holdridge's restriction on Ms. Chandler's ability to stand and walk are inconsistent with the ALJ's RFC for Ms. Chandler.

         With respect to Ms. Chandler's testimony about her limited ability to stand, the ALJ found that Ms. Chandler's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some symptoms and functional limitations. However, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 23). With respect to Dr. Holdridge's opinion regarding Ms. Chandler's limited ability to stand and walk during a workday, the ALJ gave “some good weight” to Dr. Holdridge's assessment of Ms. Chandler's physical capabilities, but the ALJ found that Dr. Holdridge's “opinions are not based on the evidence in its entirety (Exhibit B10F).” (Doc. 6-3, p. 25). The ALJ determined that Dr. Holdridge's conclusion about Ms. Chandler's limited ability to stand and walk and Ms. Chandler's need for frequent breaks was inconsistent with Dr. Holdridge's “findings [and] the overall evidence of record.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 25).[4]

         With respect to the “overall evidence of record” as it pertains to Ms. Chandler's ability to stand and walk, the ALJ stated:

Many of the physical allegations the claimant offered at the hearing were related to injuries sustained in a recent motor vehicle accident, but those limitations are expected to improve within 12 months. Despite her osteoarthritis and obesity-related pain, the claimant generally exhibits a normal gait, although she exhibited an antalgic gait at the January 2015 consultative examination (Exhibits B10F, B11F, and B15F). She has also generally maintain[ed] full strength and normal sensation (Exhibits B10F, B18F, and B20F). Diagnostic imaging has revealed only mild arthritic changes (Exhibits B6F and B20F). With respect to her obesity, Dr. Retan has advised her to exercise, which indicates that her body habitus may exacerbate her pain but does not itself limit her movement (Exhibits B12F and B16F). She has alleged severely limited activities, which is inconsistent with the activity level she reported at the consultative examinations (Exhibits B12E, B10F, and B11F). Her allegation that she can stand for only ten minutes is also undermined by her admission that she walks for exercise.

(Doc. 6-3, p. 24). As part of his examination of Ms. Chandler's ability to stand and walk, the ALJ also considered a collection of treatment records from Dr. J. Walden Retan, a treating physician. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 22-23).

         The Court must review Dr. Holdridge's findings and the “overall evidence of record” on which the ALJ relied, including Dr. Retan's treatment records, to determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to discount Dr. Holdridge's opinion about Ms. Chandler's limited ability to stand and walk and her need for frequent breaks in a workday.

         Dr. Holdridge's findings

         As pertinent to Dr. Holdridge's stand/walk restrictions, when Ms. Chandler saw Dr. Holdridge, Ms. Chandler identified bilateral knee pain and low back ...


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