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Davis v. Saul

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

December 30, 2019

LAURA DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), plaintiff Laura Davis seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner denied Ms. Davis's claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision because substantial evidence supports the decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Davis applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 41, 40). She alleges that her disability began on December 31, 2014. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 41, 40). The Commissioner initially denied Ms. Davis's claims. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 41, 40). Ms. Davis requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (Doc. 6-5, p. 16). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 24-38). The Appeals Council declined Ms. Davis's request for review, making the Commissioner's decision final for this Court's judicial review. (Doc. 6-3, p. 2). 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, ” a district court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 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 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 of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). 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 of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, 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.

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Davis meets the Social Security Act's insured status requirements through December 31, 2018, and that Ms. Davis has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of December 31, 2014. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 18, 26). The ALJ determined that Ms. Davis suffers from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, affective disorder, and, anxiety disorder. (Doc. 6-3, p. 26). The ALJ determined that Ms. Davis suffers from the non-severe impairments of sciatica and plantar fasciitis. (Doc. 6-3, p. 27).[1] Based on a review of the medical evidence, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Davis does not have an impairment or 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. 27).

         Given these impairments, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Davis's residual functional capacity. The ALJ determined that Ms. Davis has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she can occasionally climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but not use ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. (Doc. 6-3, p. 31). The ALJ found that Ms. Davis:

must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibrations, hazardous machinery and unprotected heights, and would be capable of performing simple routine job tasks requiring occasional contact with the general public and co-workers. Claimant is limited to no more than frequent fine and gross manipulation with the right dominant hand.

(Doc. 6-3, p. 31). “Sedentary work involves lifting no more than ten pounds at a time and occasionally lifting or carrying articles like docket files, ledgers, and small tools.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a). “Although a sedentary job is defined as one which involves sitting, a certain amount of walking and standing is often necessary in carrying out job duties.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 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), 416.967(a).

         Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Davis is unable to perform her past relevant work as a childcare worker, windshield inspector, cook, or home aide. (Doc. 6-3, p. 36). Relying on testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Davis can perform, including final assembler, wire tapper, and optical goods assembler. (Doc. 6-3, p. 37). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Davis has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, p. 38).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Ms. Davis contends that she is entitled to relief from the ALJ's decision because the ALJ asked the vocational expert an unclear hypothetical question and because the ALJ evaluated her pain testimony improperly. (Doc. 8, pp. 13, 15, 16). The Court begins its analysis of these issues with a review of the ALJ's pain assessment and then considers the ALJ's hypothetical question.

         A. Pain Standard

         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. Apr. 18, 2019) (citing Wilson). If the ALJ does not properly apply the three-part standard, reversal is appropriate. McLain v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 676 Fed.Appx. 935, 937 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Holt).

         A claimant's credible testimony coupled with medical evidence of an impairing condition “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223; see Gombash v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 566 Fed.Appx. 857, 859 (11th Cir. 2014) (“A claimant may establish that he has a disability ‘through his own testimony of pain or other subjective symptoms.'”) (quoting Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)). If an ALJ rejects a claimant's subjective testimony, the ALJ “must articulate explicit and adequate reasons for doing so.” Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225; Coley, 2019 WL 1975989, at *3. As a matter of law, the Secretary must accept the claimant's testimony if the ALJ inadequately or improperly discredits the testimony. Cannon v. Bowen, 858 F.2d 1541, 1545 (11th Cir. 1988); Kalishek v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 470 Fed.Appx. 868, 871 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Cannon); see Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1012 (11th Cir. 1987) (“It is established in this circuit if the Secretary fails to articulate reasons for refusing to credit a claimant's subjective pain testimony, then the Secretary, as a matter of law, has accepted that testimony as true.”).

         When credibility is at issue, the provisions of Social Security Regulation 16-3p apply. SSR 16-3p provides:

[W]e recognize that some individuals may experience symptoms differently and may be limited by symptoms to a greater or lesser extent than other individuals with the same medical impairments, the same objective medical evidence, and the same non-medical evidence. In considering the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of an individual's symptoms, we examine the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence; an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual's case record.

SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *4. An ALJ must explain the basis for findings relating to a claimant's description of symptoms:

[I]t is not sufficient . . . to make a single, conclusory statement that “the individual's statements about his or her symptoms have been considered” or that “the statements about the individual's symptoms are (or are not) supported or consistent.” It is also not enough . . . simply to recite the factors described in the regulations for evaluating symptoms. The determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's symptoms, be consistent with and supported by the evidence, and be clearly articulated so the individual and any subsequent reviewer can assess how the adjudicator evaluated the individual's symptoms.

SSR 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029, at *10. In evaluating a claimant's reported symptoms, an ALJ must consider:

(i) [the claimant's] daily activities; (ii) [t]he location, duration, frequency, and intensity of [the claimant's] pain or other symptoms; (iii) [p]recipitating and aggravating factors; (iv) [t]he type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication [the claimant] take[s] or ha[s] taken to alleviate . . . pain or other symptoms; (v) [t]reatment, other than medication, [the claimant] receive[s] or ha[s] received for relief of . . . pain or other symptoms; (vi) [a]ny measures [the claimant] use[s] or ha[s] used to relieve . . . pain or other symptoms (e.g., lying flat on your back, standing for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, sleeping on a board, etc.); and (vii) [o]ther factors concerning [the claimant's] functional limitations and restrictions due to pain or other symptoms.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), 416.929(c)(3); Leiter v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 377 Fed.Appx. 944, 947 (11th Cir. 2010).

         Here, the ALJ found that Ms. Davis's medical records, including documentation of sporadic subjective complaints of back pain and mild carpal tunnel syndrome, do not support Ms. Davis's testimony regarding her pain and limitations. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 32-33). Accordingly, the Court examines Ms. Davis's testimony and then compares her testimony to the medical and other evidence in the record.

         1. Ms. Davis's Testimony

         Ms. Davis testified that she has three children. (Doc. 6-3, p. 51). Ms. Davis's youngest child was 16 years old when the hearing took place. (Doc. 6-3, p. 51). According to Ms. Davis, she is unable to work primarily because of herniated discs in her back and bipolar disorder. She also suffers from depression and carpal tunnel syndrome. (Doc. 6-3, p. 59). Ms. Davis testified that she has back pain on the right and sciatica on the left radiating down into both legs. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 59-60).

         Ms. Davis recalled that she stopped working in poultry at Cagle's in 2013 after her “back started acting up.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Ms. Davis testified that she took “more breaks” and left her “line to go sit down” because of back pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Ms. Davis testified that she spent three months doing laundry for Days Inn in 2014. (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). According to Ms. Davis, she was unable to perform that job because the position involved “too much bending over and putting stuff in the washers and dryers.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Ms. Davis recalled being a launderer for Best Western in 2014 before she stopped working completely. (Doc. 6-3, p. 58). Since then, Ms. Davis testified that her children have taken care of her. (Doc. 6-3, p. 59).

         Ms. Davis testified that taking tramadol helps “some” to manage her pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 60).[2] Ms. Davis rated her pain seven out of ten with medication. (Doc. 6-3, p. 60). Ms. Davis testified that getting out of a chair or bed, bending, stretching, or reaching exacerbates her pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 60). According to Ms. Davis, she alternates between sitting and standing for 20 or 25 minutes. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 60-61). Ms. Davis testified that she cannot walk beyond 20 minutes and cannot lift anything over five pounds. (Doc. 6-3, p. 61). According to Ms. Davis, she “tr[ies] not to lift anything heavy because it pulls on [her] back.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 61). Ms. Davis testified that she uses a heating pad and ice 15 minutes daily to reduce her pain. (Doc. 6-3, p. 61). According to Ms. Davis, she lies down about an hour and a half daily to manage her pain. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 61-62).

         Ms. Davis testified that she tries not to move her dominant right hand because carpal tunnel syndrome causes her hand to “cramp[] up” and her fingers to stiffen so that she can “hardly bend them.” (Doc. 6-3, pp. 63, 64). According to Ms. Davis, she experiences these symptoms after using her hand for three or four minutes and has to rest a few minutes (or longer) before the symptoms subside. (Doc. 6-3, p. 64). Ms. Davis testified that she manages her carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms with heat and ice and the same pain and anti-inflammation medication she takes for her back. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 64, 63).[3]

         Ms. Davis testified that her husband does many of the household chores, but she is able to fold clothes and vacuum. (Doc. 6-3, p. 64). According to Ms. Davis, she cannot mop because “it pulls [her] back.” (Doc. 6-3, p. 64). Ms. Davis testified that cooking is not an issue because she and her husband eat out. (Doc. 6-3, p. 64). Ms. Davis testified that she avoids bending to pick something off of the floor. (Doc. 6-3, p. 65). According to Ms. Davis, she has difficulty grabbing onto items and cannot open a jar if someone has twisted the lid on tightly. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 65, 66).

         In August 2015, two years before her administrative hearing, Ms. Davis completed a functional report. In it, she stated that after getting up and going to the bathroom in the morning, she sits on the couch for a few minutes to rest her back. (Doc. 6-7, pp. 35, 27); (Doc. 6-3, p. 46). According to the report, Ms. Davis cannot stand more than 15 minutes at a time and uses a heating pad or pillows for her back when sitting. (Doc. 6-7, p. 27). Ms. Davis indicated that her granddaughter helps her with laundry so that Ms. Davis may avoid bending. (Doc. 6-7, pp. 27-28). Ms. Davis reported that ...


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