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Carson v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

January 6, 2017

CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


         Plaintiff Sandra Carson seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) benefits.


         In social security cases, courts review the Commissioner's decision for substantial evidence. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quotation omitted). . . . "We may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the Commissioner." Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quotation and brackets omitted). "If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, this Court must affirm, even if the proof preponderates against it." Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). Mitchell v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., Ill. F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2014).

         The burden of proving disability lies with the claimant. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). The ALJ applies

a five-step, "sequential" process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). If an ALJ finds a claimant disabled or not disabled at any given step, the ALJ does not go on to the next step. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4). At the first step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). At the second step, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments for which the claimant allegedly suffers is "severe." Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(h). At the third step, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant's severe impairments meet or medically equal a listed impairment. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If not, the ALJ must then determine at step four whether the claimant has the RFC[1] to perform her past relevant work. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform her past relevant work, the ALJ must determine at step five whether the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. An ALJ may make this determination either by applying the Medical Vocational Guidelines or by obtaining the testimony of a [Vocational Expert (VE)].

Stone v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec. Admin., 596 F.App'x, 878, 879 (11th Cir. 2015) (footnote added).

         II. ANALYSIS

         Carson, who was 57 years old when her DIB claim was denied, alleges disability beginning March 6, 2013. Tr. 54. She has a high school education and past relevant work as a nursing assistant. Tr. 54, 60, 186. After a hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 1-4, 80-89.

         The ALJ found that Carson's degenerative and discogenic disease of the lumbar spine (status post-lumbar fusion surgery) and obesity did not meet or medically equal a Listing. Tr. 82-85. Based on the evidence of record, the ALJ found that she retained the RFC for medium work, [2]except that "she is limited to frequent climbing of stairs and ramps, crouching, and crawling and occasional climbing of ropes, ladders, and scaffolds." Tr. 85. Plaintiff, he determined, was able to perform her past relevant work as a nurse assistant. Tr. 89. Hence, Carson was not disabled. Id.. She disagrees, arguing that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of her credibility and the medical evidence. Doc. 17.

         A. Strength Limitations to Carson's RFC

         Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p[3] regulates an ALJ's assessment of a claimant's RFC. 1996 WL 374184. Under SSR 96-8p, the "RFC assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis. . . . Only after that may RFC be expressed in terms of exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy." Id. at *1. The regulation specifically mandates a "narrative discussion" of "the individual's ability to perform sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis . . . and [a decription of] the maximum amount of each work-related activity the individual can perform based on the evidence available in the case record." Id. at *6.

         The ALJ is entitled to formulate the RFC and resolve any ambiguity or inconsistency in the medical evidence, 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927(d)(2), 946(c), based on the entire record, 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3). But he must make his own findings, specifying what functions a claimant is capable of performing, and must not simply make conclusory statements regarding a claimant's RFC. Id. at § 404.1546. See also Freeman v. Barnhart, 220 F.App'x 957, 960 (11th Cir. 2007) ("While the ALJ could have been more specific and explicit in his findings, " he sufficiently complied with SSR 96-8p because his decision made it clear that "he did consider all of the evidence and found that it did not support the level of disability [the claimant] claimed.").

         The ALJ here made no specific finding as to Carson's strength limitations, but he implicitly found her capable of lifting and carrying 25-50 pounds by finding her capable of medium work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c) (medium work is defined as work that involves lifting no more than 50 pounds at a time, with frequent lifting or carrying objects that weigh 25 pounds, and standing for approximately six hours out of an eight-hour work day); see also DICOT 355.674-014 (work as a nurse assistant requires the ability to exert "20 to 50 pounds of force occasionally (Occasionally: activity or condition exists up to 1/3 of the time) and/or 10 to 25 pounds of force frequently (Frequently: activity or condition exists from 1/3 to 2/3 of the time) and/or greater than negligible up to 10 pounds of force constantly (Constantly: activity or condition exists 2/3 or more of the time) to move objects")). Hence, the ALJ's implicit finding that Carson could regularly lift 25-50 pounds at a time during an 8-hour day was outcome determinative.[4]

         I. Plaintiffs Credibility

         The ALJ discredited plaintiffs subjective testimony as inconsistent with her admitted activities of daily living and unsupported by the objective medical evidence, and also because (despite having insurance) she had not sought care from her neurosurgeon or any other specialist since January 6, 2014, relied on over-the-counter pain medication, and pursued a largely conservative course of treatment. Tr. 87-88. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ misrepresented much of the ...

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