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Wilson v. Saul

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

January 7, 2020

FRANK WILSON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On May 27, 2015, the claimant, Frank Wilson, applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (R. 10). In his application, the claimant alleged disability beginning on May 15, 2015 because of chronic back pain. (R. 10). The Commissioner denied the claim on August 14, 2015. (R. 10). The claimant filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge and the ALJ held a hearing on April 13, 2017. (R. 10).

         In a decision dated October 6, 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. 7). On November 1, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the claimant's request for review. (R. 23). Consequently, the Commissioner's decision became final. The claimant has exhausted his 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 decision of the Commissioner.

         II. ISSUE PRESENTED

         The claimant presents one issue for review: whether the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the credibility of the plaintiff's complaints of pain consistent with the Eleventh Circuit's pain standard.

         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 court must keep in mind that opinions such as 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 the 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. A reviewing 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 social security disability benefits when he 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 an 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 to give rise to the alleged pain.” Id. Evidence that satisfies the pain standard “is itself sufficient to support a finding of disability.” Id.

         The pain standard requires more than a “single, conclusory statement” of the weight the ALJ gave the claimant's reported symptoms or a recitation of “the factors described in the regulations for evaluating symptoms.” SSR 16-3p. Rather, if an ALJ finds that the claimant's complaints do not meet the pain standard and rejects the subjective testimony, the ALJ must “articulate explicit and adequate reasons” for doing so. Holt, 921 F.2d at 1223. And “[a] clearly articulated credibility finding with substantial ...


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