Hite v. Astrue

Filing 15

MEMORANDUM OPINION. A separate judgment will issue. Signed by Honorable Wallace Capel, Jr on 12/22/2009. (cb, )

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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 C H R I S T Y M. HITE, P l a in tif f , v. M IC H A E L J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security, D e f e n d a n t. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:09cv17-WC M E M O R A N D U M OPINION I. INTRODUCTION P la in tif f applied for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social S e c u rity Act, 42 U.S.C. 1381 et seq. Plaintiff's application was denied at the initial a d m in is tra tiv e level. Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an A d m in i str a tiv e Law Judge (ALJ). Following the hearings, 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. #14); D e f .'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. #13). 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 la in tif f was thirty-five years old at the time of the hearing before an ALJ and had a h ig h school education. (Tr. 56). Plaintiff had past relevant work experience as a fast food w o r k e r . (Tr. 99). Following the administrative hearing, and employing the five-step process, th e ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset d a te (Step 1). (Tr. 36). At Step 2, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following se v e re impairments: "polysubstance dependence; schizoaffective disorder; personality d is o rd e r NOS; bipolar disorder; and mood disorder, NOS." (Tr. 38). The ALJ then found th a t, excluding the effects of polysubstance abuse, Plaintiff does not have an impairment or c o m b i n a tio n of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments. (S te p 3) (Tr. 27). Next, the ALJ found that, excluding the effects of polysubstance abuse, P la in tif f was capable of performing the exertional demands of work at any exertional level w i th a number of nonexertional limitations. (Tr. 39). Given this level of RFC, the ALJ d e te rm in e d that Plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work as a fast food worker, or that s h e could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy (S tep 4) (Tr. 39-40). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Tr. 40). IV . P L A I N T I F F ' S CLAIM P la in tif f presents one claim for this Court's consideration: "whether the ALJ erred by f a ilin g to properly consider the effect of Plaintiff's impairments in combination on the P la in tif f 's ability to work." Pl.'s Brief (Doc. #10) at 4. 5 V. D IS C U S S IO N P la in tif f claims the ALJ failed to consider the combined effect of all of her im p a irm e n ts . Specifically, Plaintiff complains that "[t]he ALJ provided no discussion or an alysis at all of two of the claimant's impairments: Hepatitis C and Bulimia Nervosa." Pl.'s B rie f (Doc. #10) at 4. The Commissioner argues that Plaintiff did not carry her burden to p ro v e her impairments of Hepatitis C and Bulimia Nervosa are severe. T h e Commissioner is correct that the burden of proof lies with Plaintiff. As stated a b o v e , the burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step 4. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F .3 d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). In this case, Plaintiff provided no objective medical e v id e n c e from any treating source to show that her Hepatitis C or Bulimia Nervosa limited h e r ability to work. "An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does n o t significantly limit [Plaintiff's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C .F .R . 404.1521(a); see also Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997). E v e n now, Plaintiff fails to point this Court to supporting medical evidence to support her c la im that her Hepatitis C and Bulimia Nervosa, either alone or in combination with her other im p a irm e n ts , affect her ability to work. "T h e Commissioner acknowledges that while the ALJ did mention Plaintiff's H e p a titis C and bulimia nervosa, he did not discuss them in depth (Tr. 23-24, 26, 28)." D e f .'s Brief (Doc. #11) at 5. However, as the Commission points out, simply because an A L J did not discuss Plaintiff's Hepatitis C and Bulimia Nervosa in detail does not mean that 6 th e y were not considered. In fact, it is clear from the ALJ's opinion that he considered them. A s the ALJ points out, Hepatitis C and Bulimia Nervosa are both self reported by Plaintiff an d not actual diagnoses from treating physicians. (Tr. 24 & 26). It was Plaintiff's burden to prove the severity of her impairments and she failed to do s o when she provided no medical evidence in support. Therefore, substantial evidence s u p p o r ts the ALJ's implicit findings that these impairments are non-severe and do not cause m o re than a minimal impact on the claimant's ability to function. 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. D O N E this 22nd day of December, 2009. /s/ Wallace Capel, Jr. WALLACE CAPEL, JR. U N IT E D STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 7

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