Chappell v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

Filing 20

MEMORANDUM OF OPINION. Signed by Judge L Scott Coogler on 6/5/2024. (MEB2)

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FILED 2024 Jun-05 AM 11:57 U.S. DISTRICT COURT N.D. OF ALABAMA IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA SOUTHERN DIVISION LAURA ANN CHAPPELL, ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) Plaintiff, v. MARTIN O’MALLEY, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant. No. 2:23-cv-01144-LSC MEMORANDUM OF OPINION I. Introduction The Plaintiff, Laura Ann Chappell (“Chappell” or “Plaintiff”) appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1.) Chappell timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). II. Background Chappell was forty-one years old when she applied for SSI benefits, and at 1 the time of the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ’s”) decision. (Tr. at 10, 22, 63, 72, 209.) She claims disability beginning on August 31, 2020, at the age of forty, due to severe depression and major anxiety disorder. (Tr. 10, 22, 202.) She has reported that she earned her GED and has previous work experience as a surgical technician and polysomnographic technician. (Tr. 20, 59, 203.) The Social Security Administra�on has established a five-step sequen�al evalua�on process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order un�l making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plain�ff is engaged in substan�al gainful ac�vity (“SGA”). See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plain�ff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step. The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plain�ff’s medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combina�on of 2 impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not sa�sfy the dura�onal requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substan�al medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plain�ff was not disabled). Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plain�ff’s impairment or combina�on of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the dura�onal requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are sa�sfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the plain�ff’s impairment or combina�on of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plain�ff’s residual func�onal capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plain�ff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plain�ff’s impairment 3 or combina�on of impairments does not prevent him from performing him past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id. The fi�h and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plain�ff’s RFC, age, educa�on, and work experience to determine whether the plain�ff can perform other work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plain�ff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plain�ff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g). Applying the aforemen�oned evalua�on process, the ALJ found that Chappell had not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from the date the applica�on was filed through the date of this decision. (Tr. 22.) The ALJ concluded that Plain�ff’s impairments of bipolar II disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regula�ons. (Tr. 12.) However, the ALJ found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equals the severity of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 13.) The ALJ determined that Chappell has the following RFC: 4 [C]laimant has the residual func�onal capacity to perform a full range of work at all exer�onal levels but with the following nonexer�onal limita�ons: She would be able to understand, remember, and carry out simple instruc�ons and tasks, tolerate changes in the workplace that are infrequent and gradually introduced, and have occasional workrelated interac�on with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public. (Tr. 15.) The ALJ relied on tes�mony from the Voca�onal Expert (“VE”) indica�ng that while Plain�ff could not perform her past relevant work, there were a significant number of jobs in the na�onal economy that she could perform. (Tr. 21.) Based on Plain�ff’s age, educa�on, work experience, and residual func�onal capacity, she was determined to be capable of performing the requirements of “light exer�onal level, unskilled, SVP 2” jobs, such as merchandise marker, rou�ng clerk, and housekeeping cleaner (Id.) The Appeals Council denied Chappell’s request for review. (Tr. 1.) III. Standard of Review This Court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Stone 5 v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App’x 1 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency’s finding from being supported by substantial evidence.’” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the proof preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). “Unpublished opinions are not considered binding precedent, but they may be cited as persuasive authority.” U.S. Ct. of App. 11th Cir. Rule 36-2. 6 1 However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard [for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984). IV. Discussion Chappell alleges that the ALJ’s decision should be reversed and remanded for three reasons. (Doc. 11 at 11-14.) These three arguments are: 1) the ALJ’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence, 2) the ALJ did not pose a complete hypothetical question to the VE, and 3) the ALJ failed to develop the record fully and fairly. (Id.) A. Substantial Evidence Plain�ff’s subjec�ve complaints alone are insufficient to establish a disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.926(a); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 (11th Cir. 1991). Subjec�ve tes�mony of pain and other symptoms may establish the presence of a disabling impairment if it is supported by medical evidence. See Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1561 (11th Cir. 1995). The Eleventh Circuit applies a two-part pain standard when a plain�ff claims disability due to pain or other 7 subjec�ve symptoms. The plain�ff must show evidence of the underlying medical condi�on and either (1) objec�ve medical evidence that confirms the severity of the alleged symptoms arising from the condi�on, or (2) that the objec�vely determined medical condi�on is of such a severity that it can reasonably be expected to give rise to the alleged symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), (b), 416.929(a), (b); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p, 2016 WL 1119029; Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1225 (11th Cir. 2002). If the first part of the pain standard is sa�sfied, the ALJ then evaluates the intensity and persistence of Plain�ff’s alleged symptoms and their effect on his ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c), 416.929(c); Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1225−26. In evalua�ng the extent to which the Plain�ff’s symptoms, such as pain, affect his capacity to perform basic work ac�vi�es, the ALJ will consider (1) objec�ve medical evidence, (2) the nature of Plain�ff’s symptoms, (3) the Plain�ff’s daily ac�vi�es, (4) precipita�ng and aggrava�ng factors, (5) the effec�veness of medica�on, (6) treatment sought for relief of symptoms, (7) any measures the Plain�ff takes to relieve symptoms, and (8) any conflicts between a Plain�ff’s statements and the rest of evidence. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3), (4), 416.929(c)(3), (4); SSR 16-3p. In order to discredit Plain�ff’s statements, the ALJ must clearly “ar�culate explicit and adequate reasons.” See Dyer, 395 F.3d at 1210. 8 A credibility determina�on is a ques�on of fact subject only to limited review in the courts to ensure the finding is supported by substan�al evidence. See Hand v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 1545, 1548−49 (11th Cir. 1985), vacated for rehearing en banc, 774 F.2d 428 (11th Cir. 1985), reinstated sub nom., Hand v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 275 (11th Cir. 1986). Courts in the Eleventh Circuit will not disturb a clearly ar�culated finding supported by substan�al evidence. Mitchell v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2014). However, a reversal is warranted if the decision contains no indica�on of the proper applica�on of the pain standard. “The ques�on is not ... whether [the] ALJ could have reasonably credited [Plain�ff’s] tes�mony, but whether the ALJ was clearly wrong to discredit it.” Werner v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 421 F. App’x 935, 939 (11th Cir. 2011). Here, the ALJ noted that the impairments underlying Plain�ff’s medical condi�ons “could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms,” thus sa�sfying the first part of the pain standard. (Tr. 16.) However, the ALJ found that Plain�ff’s “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limi�ng effects of these symptoms are not en�rely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (Id.) In the opinion, the ALJ highlighted several discrepancies between Plain�ff’s subjec�ve complaints and the objec�ve medical evidence. (See tr. 15-20.) 9 While the ALJ did find severe impairments, such as bipolar II disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, those mental impairments did not result in one extreme limita�on, or two marked limita�ons as set out by “paragraph B.” (Tr. 1314.) In understanding, remembering, or applying informa�on, the ALJ found Plain�ff to have a mild limita�on in accordance with Dr. Duke. (Tr. 13.) In interac�ng with others, the ALJ found Plain�ff to have a moderate limita�on in accordance with both Dr. Blackmon and Dr. Duke. (Tr. 14.) With regard to concentra�ng, persis�ng, or maintaining pace, the ALJ found Plain�ff to have a moderate limita�on, as Plain�ff reported ac�vi�es which require basic concentra�on, including “shopping in person and by telephone, preparing simple meals, watching television, performing household chores, and driving.” (Id.) And for adap�ng or managing oneself, the ALJ found Plain�ff to have a moderate limita�on in accordance with both Dr. Blackmon and Dr. Duke. (Id.) Thus, the “paragraph B” criteria were not sa�sfied. (Tr. 13-14.) The ALJ did not assess any physical impairments in the decision, however, Plain�ff alleges constant hand tremors. (Tr. 46.) According to Plain�ff, the hand tremors prevent her from performing job responsibili�es. (Tr. 51.) The ALJ correctly excluded Plain�ff’s alleged hand tremors from her decision, as these subjec�ve 10 statements regarding the tremors are not consistent with the objec�ve medical evidence. (Tr. 20.) In September 2019, Plain�ff began her treatment with Grayson & Associates. (Tr. 16, 408.) The physical examina�on did not note hand tremors. (Tr. 408.) When Plain�ff returned for subsequent visits in November 2019, March 2020, and June 2020, the physical examina�on revealed no record of hand tremors. (Tr. 402, 404, 406.) In July 2020, Plain�ff atended an annual visit with Dr. Hudson of St. Vincent’s Primary Care. (Tr. 349-53.) During her check-up, her physical exam and her motor and sensory func�on exam returned normal. (Tr. 350-52.) Further, no tremors were noted in the file. (Tr. 349-53.) In December 2020, Plain�ff returned to Grayson & Associates for two separate appointments. (Tr. 400, 398.) During neither visit were hand tremors noted in the physical examina�on. In March 2021, Plain�ff was examined for her annual visit by Dr. Hudson and there is no record of hand tremors. (Tr. 340-43.) In March 2021, Plain�ff visited Grayson & Associates and no hand tremors were noted. (Tr. 396.) Finally, in February 2022, Plain�ff was again treated by Dr. Hudson for her annual check-up. (Tr. 418-21.) No hand tremors were noted. (Tr. 418-19.) The objec�ve medical evidence does not support Plain�ff’s claims of hand tremors. Therefore, there is substan�al evidence for the ALJ to find that Plain�ff’s 11 “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limi�ng effects of these symptoms are not en�rely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (Tr. 16.) B. Hypothetical Question Posed to the VE The hypothe�cal ques�on posed to the VE stems from the ALJ’s determina�on of Plain�ff’s RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). A claimant’s RFC reflects his ability to perform “work-related physical and mental ac�vi�es in a work se�ng” within a forty-hour work week in light of his “func�onal limita�ons and restric�ons that result from an individual’s medically determinable impairment or combina�on of impairments, including the impact of any related symptoms.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). “RFC is not the least an individual can do despite his or her limita�ons or restric�ons, but the most.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (emphasis in original). The ALJ bases a claimant’s RFC on all the evidence in the record, including informa�on about the claimant’s symptoms and medical opinions. Id. at *2. Moreover, the determina�on of a claimant’s RFC lies within the sole purview of the ALJ, not the doctors providing medical opinions or other evidence. Robinson v. Astrue, 365 F. App’x 993, 999 (11th Cir. 2010) (“[T]he task of determining a claimant's [RFC] and ability to work is within the province of 12 the ALJ, not of doctors.”). Therefore, a�er determining the plain�ff’s RFC, the ALJ poses the hypothe�cal ques�on to the VE. When the ALJ poses a hypothe�cal consistent with an RFC that is supported by substan�al evidence, the ALJ does not err in posing that hypothe�cal. Bouie v. Astrue, 226 F. App'x 892, 895 (11th Cir. 2007). However, in the hypothe�cal ques�on, the ALJ is not required to include func�onal limita�ons she properly rejected as unsupported. See McSwain v. Bowen, 814 F.2d 617, 619–20 & n.1 (11th Cir. 1987); Martinson v. Shalala, 843 F. Supp. 1448, 1450–51 (M.D. Fla. 1994) (approving hypothe�cal ques�ons relying on “objec�ve medical tes�mony” of plain�ff's physicians but disregarding plain�ff's complaints of pain, which were found to be incredible). Here, Plain�ff claims that the ALJ erred in the RFC and subjec�ve complaint analysis to her claims regarding �me off-task, missing days of work, and alleged hand tremors. (Doc. 11 at 12.) The record demonstrates the presence of bipolar II disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, as well as takes into considera�on the effects those impairments have on Plain�ff. (Tr. 13, doc. 11 at 5.) For example, the ALJ concluded that Plain�ff could perform work with nonexer�onal limita�ons, such as “understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instruc�ons and tasks, tolera�ng changes in the workplace that are infrequent and gradually 13 introduced, and having occasional work-related interac�on with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public.” (Tr. 20.) This determina�on is consistent with findings from Dr. Blackmon and Dr. Duke. (Tr. 19.) Further, the ALJ concluded that the record as a whole does not support the presence of the addi�onal limita�ons allegedly restric�ng Plain�ff’s ability to work. (Tr. 20.) The ALJ properly included restric�ons supported by the medical record in the RFC. The RFC is iden�cal to the hypothe�cal ques�on the ALJ posed to the VE. (Tr. 15, 59.) Therefore, the ALJ did not err and posed a complete hypothe�cal ques�on to the VE. C. Full and Fair Development of the Record An ALJ “has a basic obliga�on to develop a full and fair record.” Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). “However, there must be a showing of prejudice before it is found that the claimant’s right to due process has been violated to such a degree that the case must be remanded to the [Commissioner] for further development of the record.” Id. at 1423; see Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003); Kelley v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 1538, 1540-41 (11th Cir. 1985). An ALJ is not required to order a consulta�ve examina�on as long as the record contains sufficient evidence to make an informed decision. See Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1281; Wilson v. Apfel, 179 F.3d 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 1999); see also 20 C.F.R. 14 § 416.919a(b) (sta�ng agency may purchase a consulta�ve examina�on “when the evidence as a whole is insufficient to allow [the agency] to make a determina�on or decision on [the claimant’s] claim”); Castle v. Colvin, 557 F. App’x 849, 853-54 (11th Cir. 2014) (concluding district court erred in remanding case to ALJ with instruc�ons to obtain consulta�ve examina�on because record had been fully and fairly developed, and consulta�ve examina�on was not necessary for ALJ to make informed decision (Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1269 (11th Cir. 2007). Further, a consulta�ve examina�on need not be obtained to establish absolute certainty regarding a claimant’s condi�on, as the Act requires only substan�al evidence to support an ALJ’s findings. See Holladay v. Bowen, 848 F.2d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 1988). Here, Chappell contends that because she was not represented by an atorney, a higher standard of care must apply to the ALJ’s duty to develop a full and fair record. (Doc. 11 at 13-14.) However, as noted by the ALJ, the Plain�ff knowingly waived her right to representa�on. (Tr. 41-43.) Addi�onally, Chappell failed to show that the absence of a consulta�ve physical examina�on has prejudiced her claim. As decided above, the ALJ’s decision was based on substan�al evidence. When the record contains sufficient evidence to support a determina�on, the ALJ is not obliged to order a consulta�ve 15 examina�on. See Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). Chappell failed to meet her burden to prove her allega�ons of disability. Therefore, the ALJ fulfilled his obliga�on of developing a full and fair record. IV. Conclusion Upon review of the administrative record, and considering Chappell’s argument, this Court finds the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence and is in accordance with the applicable law. Thus, the decision is AFFIRMED. A separate order consistent with this opinion will be entered. DONE and ORDERED on June 5, 2024. _____________________________ L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge 16 215708

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