United States District Court, Middle District of Georgia, Macon Division
ZYRA I. YOUNGBLOOD, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
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 Zyra I. Youngblood’s application for benefits. In accordance with the analysis below, it is RECOMMENDED that the Commissioner’s decision be AFFIRMED.
Plaintiff, who was born in September 1956, applied for Title II and Title XVI benefits in November 2009. (R. 37; Pl.’s Br., Doc. 13, p. 3). At her administrative hearing in December 2011, Plaintiff claimed to suffer from “longstanding back pain which radiates into her leg[s], ” “bilateral wrist pain which had been diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, ” “bilateral hip pain, ” “breathing problems, ” and “gastrointestinal issues.” (R. 36). Plaintiff claims that she quit her last job working as a cook or dishwasher in July 2006 because of her back and ankle pain. (R. 40, 47). Regarding Plaintiff’s back pain, in particular, Plaintiff claims that it started when she was 16, and that it grew worse when Plaintiff had her first child. (R. 47-48). Plaintiff also claims that she broke her ankle getting out of the tub, (R. 53), and that her wrist pain is the result of “roll[ing] tubs . . .all day long” at a fiberglass tub manufacturer, where Plaintiff worked from May 1998 to July 2000. (R. 49-50, 181, 186). While Plaintiff acknowledged that she had never been hospitalized for her breathing problems, she indicated that she regularly uses an albuterol pump. (R. 52).
Plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, (R. 63-66), and the reviewing administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found Plaintiff “not disabled” in an opinion dated January 23, 2012. (R. 21-28). The Appeals Council denied review in Plaintiff’s case on May 24, 2013, and Plaintiff now seeks review before this Court under “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 purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of a least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
When analyzing the issue of disability, the Commissioner must follow a five-step sequential evaluation procedure. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, Appendix 1, Part 404. First, the Commissioner determines whether or not the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Second, upon a finding that the claimant is not working, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has any impairment that prevents the performance of basic work activities. Next, if the existence of such impairments has been found, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment(s) meets or medically equals the severity of one or more of the specified impairments listed in Appendix 1 of Part 404 of the regulations. If the claimant’s impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the Commissioner must evaluate the claimant’s residual functional capacity (RFC) for work. Fourth, using the claimant’s RFC, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to perform the physical and mental demands of his past work despite the impairments. Finally, and only when it has been determined that the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work, the Commissioner must determine whether there are sufficient numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and past work experience.
Plaintiff raises three grounds for relief. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Dr. James Southerland, a treating physician. As discussed below, however, the ALJ sufficiently articulated “good cause” for discounting Dr. Southerland’s opinion, and therefore did not err. Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to acknowledge the objective findings of Dr. Edith Woody, a consultative examiner. Contrary to Plaintiff’s arguments, the ALJ properly acknowledged and discounted Dr. Woody’s findings, some of which were not, in fact, objective. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in discounting complaints of medication side effects in the form of drowsiness. As discussed below, though, neither the record nor the cases cited by Plaintiff support Plaintiff’s position. Rather, because none of ...