Williams v. Astrue

Filing 19

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER. Signed by Honorable Wallace Capel, Jr on 1/11/2010. (br, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA S O U T H E R N DIVISION R A N D Y V. WILLIAMS, P l a in tif f , v. MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:09cv039-WC M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER I. INTRODUCTION P la in tif f Randy V. Williams applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of th e Social Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. 401 et seq, and supplemental security in c o m e benefits under Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. 1381-1381c. His application was d e n ie d at the initial administrative level. Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing b e f o re an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). After conducting two separate hearings, the ALJ a ls o denied the claims. (Tr. 15-24). The Appeals Council rejected a subsequent request for re v ie w . The ALJ's decision consequently became the final decision of the Commissioner o f Social Security (Commissioner).1 See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1 9 8 6 ). The case is now before the Court for review under 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Pursuant to Pursuant to the Social Security Independence and Program Improvements Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-296, 108 Stat. 1464, the functions of the Secretary of Health and Human Services with respect to Social Security matters were transferred to the Commissioner of Social Security. 1 2 8 U.S.C. 636(c), both parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry o f a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Pl.'s Consent to Ju risd iction (Doc. #10); Def.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. #9). Based on the Court's re v ie w of the record and the briefs of the parties, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the C o m m i s s io n e r . II. STANDARD OF REVIEW U n d e r 42 U.S.C. 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to disability benefits when the p e rso n is unable to e n g a g e in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically d e ter m in a b le 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 o f not less than 12 months. 4 2 U.S.C. 423(d)(1)(A).2 T o make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential e v a lu a tio n process. See 20 C.F.R. 404.1520, 416.920 (2006). (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 im p a irm e n ts set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? [the Listing of I m p a i rm e n t s] (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? A n affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next A "physical or mental impairment" is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. 2 2 q u e stio n , or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative a n sw e r to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of "not d is a b le d ." M c D a n ie l v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).3 T h e burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step 4. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F .3 d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). A claimant establishes a prima facie case of qualifying d is a b ility once they have carried the burden of proof from Step 1 through Step 4. At Step 5, th e burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show there are a significant number o f jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id. To perform the fourth and fifth steps, the ALJ must determine the claimant's Residual F u n c tio n a l Capacity (RFC). Id. at 1238-39. RFC is what the claimant is still able to do d e s p ite his impairments and is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. Id. It also c a n contain both exertional and nonexertional limitations. Id. at 1242-43. At the fifth step, th e ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if th e re are jobs available in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id. at 1239. To d o this, the ALJ can either use the Medical Vocational Guidelines 4 (grids) or call a vocational e x p e rt (VE). Id. at 1239-40. T h e grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or 3 McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026 (11th Cir. 1986), is a supplemental security income case (SSI). The same sequence applies to disability insurance benefits. Cases arising under Title II are appropriately cited as authority in Title XVI cases. See, e.g., Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408 (5th Cir. 1981). 4 See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404 subpt. P, app. 2. 3 lig h t work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience. E a c h factor can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available to an in d iv id u a l. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a statutorilyre q u ire d finding of "Disabled" or "Not Disabled." Id. The Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one. This Court must f in d the Commissioner's decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U .S .C . 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). "Substantial e v id e n c e is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence a s a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. P e ra le s, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). See also Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1 1 5 5 , 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) ("Even if the evidence preponderates against the C o m m iss io n e r ' s findings, [a reviewing court] must affirm if the decision reached is s u p p o rte d by substantial evidence."). A reviewing court may not look only to those parts of th e record which support the decision of the ALJ, but instead must view the record in its e n t ir e ty and take account of evidence which detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. H ills m a n v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179 (11th Cir. 1986). [The court must] . . . scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the re a so n a b le n e ss of the [Commissioner's] . . . factual findings. . . . No similar p r e s u m p t io n of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] . . . legal conclusions, in c lu d in g determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating c la im s . W a lk e r v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987). 4 III. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS P la in tif f was thirty-four years old and had a tenth-grade education at the time of the h ea rin g before the ALJ. Tr. 246. Plaintiff's past relevant work experience included work a s a general laborer, forklift operator, and asbestos remover. Tr. 23, 267, 270. Following th e administrative hearing, and employing the five-step process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had n o t engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of December 30, 2004 (S tep 1). Tr. 17. At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe im p a irm e n ts : "thoracic/lumbar strain/low back pain." Tr. 17. The ALJ then found that P la in tif f "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or m e d ic a lly equals one of the listed impairments." (Step 3) Tr. 17. Next, the ALJ found that P la in tif f retains the RFC to "perform light exertional work with occasional climbing, b a la n c in g , stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and overheard reaching; and occasional p ro x im ity to vibration, moving mechanical parts, and working in high places . . . ." Tr. 18. G iv e n this level of RFC, and after consulting with a vocational expert, the ALJ determined th a t Plaintiff "is unable to perform any past relevant work." (Step 4) Tr. 23. The ALJ then f o u n d that, "[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual f u n c tio n a l capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy th a t the claimant can perform." Tr. 23. Specifically, the ALJ found that, considering the l i m ita tio n s on Plaintiff's ability to perform the full range of light work, Plaintiff is able to p e rf o rm the occupational demands of "unskilled production assembler," "unskilled parking 5 a tte n d a n t," and "sedentary surveillance monitor." Tr.24. Accordingly, the ALJ found that P la in tif f is not disabled. Tr. 24. IV. P L A I N T I F F ' S CLAIM P lain tiff presents one issue for this Court's review - whether "the ALJ failed to f o rm u la te [Plaintiff's] RFC in accordance with Social Security Ruling 96-8p." Pl.'s Brief (D o c . #13) at 7. V. DISCUSSION A. T h e ALJ's formulation of Plaintiff's RFC. P lain tiff claims that the ALJ "failed to formulate [Plaintiff's] RFC in accordance with S o c ia l Security Ruling 96-8p" because the ALJ gave "greater weight" to the findings of a c o n su lta tiv e examiner whose opinion, purportedly, "fail[s] to provide substantial support for the ALJ's light RFC finding . . . ." P.'s Brief (Doc. #13) at 8 (emphasis in original). S p e c if ica lly, Plaintiff claims that, while the ALJ found that Plaintiff can "maintain o c c u p atio n a l postures 8 hours a day," the consultative examiner, Dr. Meadows, opined that P lain tiff "may only be able to maintain occupational posture for 6 hours a day." Id. at n.8 (e m p h a sis in original). Thus, Plaintiff contends, the ALJ was required, under SSR 96-8p, to d e m o n stra te how he "considered and resolved" this purported inconsistency or ambiguity b e tw e e n the evidence and the given RFC. Id. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's purported f a ilu re to do so requires reversal. 6 D e f en d a n t maintains that the ALJ's RFC formulation is supported by substantial e v id e n c e and complies with all "agency regulations and Eleventh Circuit case law . . . ." D e f .'s Brief (Doc. #14) at 4. Moreover, Defendant asserts that Dr. Williams' opinion is c o n sis te n t with the ALJ's findings and the definition of "light work" included in the g u id e lin e s . Id. at 5. T h e Court first notes that Plaintiff's construction of Dr. Meadows's assessment is o v e rly parsimonious, if not objectively incorrect. The form completed by Dr. Meadows re q u e sts that Dr. Meadows assess the "HOURS TOTAL PER 8-HR DAY" during which P lain tiff could be expected to stand, walk, or sit. Dr. Meadows indicated that Plaintiff could p erf o rm each of the three work-related activities for "2-3 h." Tr. 226. Thus, Plaintiff's p o s itio n strikes the Court as disingenuous - Dr. Meadows can also fairly be said to have f o u n d that Plaintiff may be able to "maintain occupational postures" for nine hours in an e ig h t-h o u r work day. While ideally Dr. Meadows would have indicated a specific duration f o r each activity which, in the aggregate, amounts to eight hours, it is most prudent to find, a s did the ALJ, that Dr. Meadows believes Plaintiff can perform each of the activities for e q u a l amounts of time - though no longer than three hours for any given activity - in an eighth o u r day. Thus, in comparing the evidence relied upon by the ALJ and his ultimate RFC d e t e rm in a tio n , the Court discerns no tangible inconsistency or ambiguity deserving of the im p o rt attributed by Plaintiff. Moreover, it is apparent that Dr. Meadows's opinion and, by extension, that of the 7 A L J , is consistent with the definition of "light work" set forth in the regulations. Social S e c u rity Ruling 83-10 states that "the full range of light work requires standing or walking, o f f and on, for a total of approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. Sitting may occur in ter m itte n tly during the remaining time." SSR 83-10. Because Dr. Meadows indicated his b e lie f that Plaintiff can stand or walk for up to a combined six hours in an eight hour w o r k d a y, with intermittent sitting satisfying the remaining hours, Tr. 226, Dr. Meadows' o p inion is consistent with both the definition of "the full range of light work" and, even more s o , the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff can perform "light exertional work" with some lim ita tio n s . Tr. 18.5 G iv e n all of the above, the Court finds that there are no significant or "material in c o n sis te n c ie s" between the evidence of Plaintiff's RFC and the ALJ's ultimate formulation o f RFC. Relying upon the available evidence in the record, the ALJ properly described P la in tif f 's RFC in terms of his maximum ability to perform basic work activities, Tr. 18, 2707 1 , and the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. . Accordingly, P lain tiff 's claim that the ALJ failed to comply with SSR 96-8p is without merit. VI. C O N C L U SIO N T h e Court has carefully and independently reviewed the record and concludes the d e c is io n of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. A separate judgment will issue. See SSR 96-8p ("RFC does not represent the least an individual can do despite his or her limitations or restrictions, but the most.") (emphasis in original). 8 5 D O N E this 11th day of January, 2010. /s/ Wallace Capel, Jr. WALLACE CAPEL, JR. U N IT E D STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 9

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