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Nelson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Middle District of Georgia, Macon Division

July 11, 2014

SHAWNAH M. NELSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Social Security Appeal

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Charles H. Weigle United States Magistrate Judge

This is a review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Shawnah M. Nelson’s application for benefits. In accordance with the analysis below, it is RECOMMENDED that Plaintiff’s case be REVERSED and REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings pursuant to “sentence four” of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was born in April 1964, filed an application for Title II benefits in March 2009 alleging an initial onset date of June 23, 2008. (Pl.’s Br., Doc. 14, pp. 3-4). Plaintiff claims to be disabled due to “a variety of medical problems including arthritis, anxiety, depression, asthma, and obesity.” (Id.). These problems caused Plaintiff to miss nearly seven or eight months of work, and eventually to leave her job with GEICO in June 2008. (R. 39-42).

Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and on reconsideration, (R. 104-05), and a reviewing Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Judge Carol G. Moore, issued an unfavorable decision in Plaintiff’s case on May 20, 2011. (R. 109-117). Judge Moore found that Plaintiff suffered from a number of “severe” impairments, including “Osteoarthritis of the knees, ” “Morbid Obesity, ” “Degenerative joint disease, ” and “Fibromyalgia.” (R. 112). Judge Moore also found, though, that no treating-source functional evaluations or opinions were in the record, and that Plaintiff’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her impairments were “not fully credible.” (R. 115-116). As a result, Judge Moore found Plaintiff “not disabled.” (Id.).

Plaintiff sought review with the Appeals Council, which, in August 2011, remanded on two grounds. (R. 124-25). First, the Appeals Council noted that Judge Moore failed to consider or evaluate a Third-Party Function Report completed by Ms. Patricia Nelson, Plaintiff’s mother. (Id.). Second, the Appeals Council found that Judge Moore did not comply with S.S.R. 96-7p in discounting Plaintiff’s subjective pain testimony. (Id.). Specifically, the Appeals Council instructed Judge Moore to provide “specific reasons for the finding on credibility, supported by the evidence in the case record, and . . . to make clear the weight that is given to the claimant’s statements and the reason for that weight.” (Id.).

On remand in June 2012, Judge Moore found that Plaintiff suffered from several new “severe” impairments, including “rheumatoid arthritis” and “gastric ulcers.” (R. 16). Judge Moore also expressly assigned “little weight” to Ms. Patricia Nelsons’ Third-Party Function Report, and again discounted Plaintiff’s subjective pain testimony. (R. 22). In finding Plaintiff “not fully credible, ” Judge Moore noted that “the objective medical findings do not show findings of such severity as to preclude the claimant from all work.” (Id.). Judge Moore also noted that Plaintiff had not been compliant with diet and exercise recommendations, and that Plaintiff’s daily activities appeared inconsistent with the alleged severity of her impairments. (Id.). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request to review Judge Moore’s second opinion on June 4, 2013, (R. 1-4), and Plaintiff now seeks review before this Court pursuant to “sentence four” of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ingram v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2007).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

District courts have a limited role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act. Review of the Commissioner’s decision is restricted to a determination of whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is defined as more than a scintilla and means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Consequently, a court’s role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is quite narrow.

District courts must defer to the Commissioner’s factual findings. Courts may not decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute their judgment for that of the Commissioner. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Credibility determinations are left to the Commissioner and not to the courts. Carnes v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1991). It is also up to the Commissioner and not to the courts to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Wheeler v. Heckler, 784 F.2d 1073, 1075 (11th Cir. 1986). See also Graham v. Bowen, 790 F.2d 1572, 1575 (11th Cir. 1986). Courts must scrutinize the entire administrative record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s factual findings. Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239. However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner’s decision, the decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence. Id.

The Commissioner’s findings of law are given less deference. Courts must determine if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision. Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980). Courts must therefore consider any questions of law de novo, and “no . . . presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner’s] conclusions of law, including determinations of the proper standards to be applied in reviewing claims.” Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982). The Commissioner’s failure to apply the correct legal standards or to provide a sufficient factual basis for the court to determine that the correct legal standards have been followed is grounds for reversal. Id.

EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

Persons are “disabled” for the purposes of receiving benefits under the Social Security Act if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last ...


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