Caton v. Astrue

Filing 18

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING the decision of the Commissioner. Signed by Honorable Wallace Capel, Jr on 7/14/09. (djy, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA N O R T H E R N DIVISION J A N IC E I. CATON, P l a in tif f , v. MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:08cv498-WC M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER I. INTRODUCTION P la in tif f Janice I. Caton applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the S o c ia l Security Act ("the Act"), 42 U.S.C. 401 et seq. Her application was denied at the in itia l administrative level. Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an A d m in i str a tiv e Law Judge (ALJ). Following the hearing, the ALJ also denied the claims. T h e Appeals Council rejected a subsequent request for review. The ALJ's decision c o n se q u e n tly became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (C o m m issio n er).1 See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The case is n o w before the Court for review under 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 636(c), b o th parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry of a final judgment 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 b y the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Pl.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. #11); D e f .'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. #10). Based on the Court's review of the record and the b rief s of the parties, the Court AFFIRMS the decision of the Commissioner. 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 i r m e n t s 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 q u e sti o 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 ." 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 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 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 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 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 is s 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 lain tiff was fifty-five years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ. (Tr. 154). P la in tif f completed the sixth grade. (Tr. 154). Plaintiff's past relevant work experience in c lu d e d work as a security guard. (Tr. 19, 159).5 Following the administrative hearing, and e m p lo yin g the five-step process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial g a in f u l activity since the alleged onset date of May 15, 2005 (Step 1). (Tr. 16). At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the severe impairment of hypertension (Tr. 16). T h e ALJ then found that Plaintiff "does not have an impairment that meets or medically e q u a ls one of the listed impairments." (Step 3) (Tr. 17). Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff re ta in s the RFC to "perform medium work." (Tr. 17-19). Given this level of RFC, the ALJ d e ter m in e d that Plaintiff "is capable of performing her past relevant work as a security g u a rd ." (Step 4) (Tr. 19). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. (T r. 19). IV . P L A I N T I F F 'S CLAIMS P la in tif f alleges two errors requiring reversal of the ALJ's decision:6 (1) "the ALJ sh o u ld have found Plaintiff to be disabled pursuant to the Medical Vocational Guidelines;" a n d (2) "the ALJ committed reversible error by finding hypertension to be Plaintiff's only Plaintiff also spent considerable time in the fifteen years preceding the hearing as a housekeeper at a hotel and as a stocker at a store. (Tr. 155-59). The following quotes are taken from the all-capped headers which introduce the two portions of the "Argument" section of Plaintiff's brief. 5 6 5 se v e re impairment." Pl.'s Brief in Support of Argument (Doc. #13) at 4, 5. The Court will a d d re s s each of Plaintiff's claims in turn. V. DISCUSSION A. T h e ALJ's finding of no disability without consultation of the Guidelines. P la in tif f contends that "the ALJ should have found [Plaintiff] disabled under 20 C .F .R . Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 2, Rule 202.01" (the Guidelines), because of Plaintiff's a g e , "marginal" education, and purportedly "unskilled past work." Pl.'s Brief in Support of A rg u m e n t (Doc. #13) at 4. Plaintiff also claims that the ALJ erred in finding her capable of d o in g medium work, which entails lifting fifty pounds occasionally, because she only weighs slig h tly over one hundred pounds. Defendant maintains that substantial evidence supports th e ALJ's RFC determination and that, because the ALJ found that Plaintiff could return to h e r past relevant work, the ALJ was not required to apply the Medical Vocational Guidelines. D e f .'s Memo. In Support of the Commissioner's Decision (Doc. #16) at 6-10. P la in tif f 's reliance on Rule 202.01 of the Medical Vocational Guidelines is misplaced. B ec au se the ALJ determined that Plaintiff can perform her past relevant work,7 as that term is defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1565(a), the ALJ was not required to consult the Medical V o c a tio n a l Guidelines. This is apparent on the face of the Guidelines. See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, s u b p t. B, App. 2, 200.00(a) (stating that the Guidelines are to be applied "where an Plaintiff does not explicitly challenge the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff can perform the duties of a security guard, as Plaintiff described them at the hearing. 6 7 i n d iv id u a l with a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) is not e n g a g in g in substantial gainful activity and the individual's impairment(s) prevents the p e rf o rm a n c e of his or her vocationally relevant past work."). See also 20 C.F.R. 404.1569. A c c o rd in g ly, it was not error for the ALJ to fail to find Plaintiff disabled pursuant to Rule 2 0 2 .0 1 o f the Guidelines. P l a in t if f also challenges the ALJ's determination of her RFC. Plaintiff bears the b u rd e n of proving her entitlement to benefits. See Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 4 9 6 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007) ("Even though Social Security courts are inquisitorial, n o t adversarial, in nature, claimants must establish that they are eligible for benefits."). This b u rd e n includes the obligation to establish her RFC. Other than her assertion about the p u rp o rte d incongruity that someone who weighs slightly more than a hundred pounds should b e able to occasionally lift fifty pounds, Plaintiff does not offer any evidence to conflict with th e ALJ's determination that she is capable of medium work. In contrast, the evidence of re c o rd supports such a finding. In particular, the ALJ relied upon the Physical RFC A s s e s s m e n t that was completed by a DDS physician and which found Plaintiff capable of lif tin g weight at thresholds consistent with medium work. (Tr. 131). Likewise, during a c o n su lta tiv e examination, Dr. Jani found Plaintiff capable of lifting amounts greater than the m e d iu m work thresholds. (Tr. 115).8 Given this evidence, and the lack of any probative While Dr. Jani's assessment that Plaintiff may occasionally lift one hundred pounds certainly strikes the Court as suspect, it is entirely plausible that it amounts to a scrivener's error and that Dr. Jani intended to describe Plaintiff's lifting capacities as twenty-five 7 8 e v id e n c e offered by Plaintiff, the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff is capable of performing m e d iu m work is supported by substantial evidence. B. T h e ALJ's finding that hypertension is Plaintiff's only severe impairment. P la in tif f claims the ALJ erred in failing to find her anxiety and gastroesophageal re f lu x disorder (GERD) severe impairments. As evidence that such impairments are severe, sh e claims that "Dr. Jani diagnosed her with anxiety" and that she was prescribed anti-anxiety m e d ic a tio n by Dr. Mikul. Pl.'s Brief in Support of Argument (Doc. #13) at 5. Defendant m a in ta in s that Plaintiff failed to establish that either of the claimed impairments are severe. P la in tif f bears the burden of proving than an impairment is severe. Furthermore, a p ro v id e r's diagnosis or treatment of a claimed impairment does not render it severe. Instead, a n impairment may be considered severe only if evidence establishes that the impairment " s ig n if ic a n tly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 2 0 C.F.R. 404.1520(c); Edwards v. Heckler, 736 F.2d 625, 629 (11th Cir. 1984). The ev iden ce of record does not support Plaintiff's contention that her anxiety or GERD are s e v e re impairments. Plaintiff first asserts that her anxiety constitutes a severe impairment. However, P la in tif f points to no evidence in the record indicating that her anxiety imposes more than a and fifty pounds rather than fifty and one hundred pounds, respectively. In any event, Plaintiff points to no objective evidence in the record that she is incapable of lifting weight at the capacities found by the ALJ. 8 m in im a l limitation on her ability to work. In finding that Plaintiff's anxiety is not severe, the A L J relied upon the Psychiatric Review Technique Form completed by Dr. Rankart which o p in e d that Plaintiff's anxiety disorder causes only mild limitation on her ability to work and is therefore not severe. (Tr. 116, 126). Dr. Rankart based his opinion on the available m e d ic a l evidence and Plaintiff's report of her daily living activities (Tr. 64-68), which in d ic a te s that Plaintiff cares for herself on a day to day basis, has no problems getting along w ith others, socializes frequently, and "only gets nervous when she is around excessive noise a n d activity." (Tr. 128). The ALJ also considered it relevant that Plaintiff has no history of se e k in g treatment from mental health professionals for her anxiety. (Tr. 16). Given this ev iden ce , and the lack of any objective medical evidence demonstrating that Plaintiff's a n x ie ty causes more than minimal limitations on her ability to work, the ALJ's finding that P la in tif f 's anxiety is not a severe impairment is supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff's claim that the ALJ erred in failing to find her GERD a severe impairment is also without merit. Plaintiff cites to no evidence in the record about the purportedly lim itin g effects of GERD on her ability to work. The only references to GERD in the m e d ic a l records appear to predate the onset of disability date given by Plaintiff and, in any e v e n t, do not portend any limiting attributes of the impairment. Thus, the ALJ's finding that P la in tif f 's GERD is not a severe impairment is supported by substantial evidence. VI. CONCLUSION T h e Court has carefully and independently reviewed the record and concludes the 9 d e c is io n of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. A separate judgment will issue. D O N E this 14th day of July, 2009. /s/ Wallace Capel, Jr. WALLACE CAPEL, JR. U N IT E D STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 10

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