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King v. Saul

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

December 18, 2019

ROBERT KING, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN E. OTT CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Robert King appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1).[1]King timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the Commissioner's decision is ripe for review. For the reasons discussed below, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.[2]

         I. Procedural History

         King was fifty-one years old when he filed his SSI application and fifty-four years old at the time of the decision. (R. 16-27, 139).[3] He graduated from high school[4] and has past work experience in the fast food industry as a worker, cook and manager. (R. 45, 175). His last job was as a fast food manager in 2008. (R. 175). He alleges that he is unable to work because of mental health issues. (R. 174).

         King alleges he became disabled on December 9, 2015. (R. 16, 170). When the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his claims initially, (R. 56-57), King requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), (R. 79-81). A video hearing was held on February 15, 2018. (R. 28-52). Following the hearing, the ALJ denied his claim. (R. 16-27). King appealed the decision to the Appeals Council (“AC”). After reviewing the record, the AC declined to further review the ALJ's decision. (R. 1-6). That decision became the final decision of the Commissioner and is now ripe for review. See Frye v. Massanari, 209 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1251 (N.D. Ala. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)).

         II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To establish his eligibility for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Social Security Administration employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b).

         First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. “Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that []he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012).[5] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. At the first step, the ALJ determined King has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 11, 2015, the date of his application. (R. 18).

         If a claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (a)(4)(ii) & (c). An impairment “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” See Id. at § 416.921. Furthermore, it “must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms.” Id.; see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). An impairment is severe if it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 416.922(c).[6]“[A]n impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments, even though none of his individual impairments alone is disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 The claimant bears the burden of providing medical evidence demonstrating an impairment and its severity. Id. at § 416.912(a). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(ii) and (c). At the second step, the ALJ determined King has the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of right hip and bipolar disorder with psychosis. (R. 18).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment meets or equals one of the “Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii) & (d). The claimant bears the burden of proving his impairment meets or equals one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the Listings, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R § 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined King did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the Listings. (R. 19-21).

         If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). A claimant's RFC is the most he can do despite his impairment. See Id. at § 416.945(a). At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare the assessment of the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. at § 416.945(a)(4)(iv). “Past relevant work is work that [the claimant] [has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it.” Id. § 416.960(b)(1). The claimant bears the burden of proving that his impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv) & (f).

         Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ determined King has the RFC to perform a limited range of medium work. (R. at 21). More specifically, the ALJ found King had the following limitations with regard to medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c):

He can perform postural activities on an occasional basis. He should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures and industrial hazards (e.g., unprotected heights, moving machine parts, operating motor vehicles). The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out detailed tasks and instructions.

(Id.). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined King was capable of performing his past relevant work as a fast food manager, fast food worker, and fast food cook. (Id. at 27). With this determination, the inquiry ended because if the claimant is capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. Id.at § 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). The ALJ concluded King had not been under a disability as defined by the SSA since December 11, 2015. (R. 27).

         III. Standard of Review

         Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A district court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         A district court reviews the Commissioner's legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         IV. Discussion

         King makes four arguments in favor of remand. First, he contends the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the medical source opinion from his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Feist. (Doc. 11 at 16-23). Second, King argues the ALJ improperly applied the pain standard. (Id. at 23-32). Third, King asserts the ALJ's finding that he can perform his past relevant work is not supported by substantial evidence and not in accordance with proper legal standards. (Id. at 32-36). Finally, he contends that the VE's testimony is not substantial evidence because it was based on an inaccurate and incomplete hypothetical question. (Id. at 36-40). The court addresses each argument below.

         A. Treating Psychiatrist Opinion

         King first argues that the ALJ erred in discounting the opinion of Dr. Feist, his treating psychiatrist. (Id. at 16-23). King contends that Dr. Feist's opinion “is well supported by clinical and laboratory findings, and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence” and should have been given substantial weight.[7] (Id. at 20-23).

         A treating physician's opinion “must be given substantial or considerable weight unless ‘good cause' is shown to the contrary.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir.1997). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has stated that “‘good cause' exists when the: (1) treating physician's opinion was not bolstered by the evidence; (2) evidence supported a contrary finding; or (3) treating physician's opinion was conclusory or inconsistent with the doctor's own medical records.” Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 2004). In rejecting a medical opinion, the ALJ must clearly articulate his or her reasons for doing so.

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in giving little weight to the mental health source statement signed by Dr. Feist, on July 19, 2017. (Doc. 11 at 16-23, R. 25-26, 345). The one-page form provides that Plaintiff had some limitations based on his mental health. (R. 345). The form asks the person completing it to circle “yes or no” to the following questions:

• Can Mr. King understand, remember or carry out very short and simple instructions?
• Can Mr. King maintain attention, concentration and /or pace for periods of ...

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