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Cooper v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

January 25, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

         Social Security Appeal


          Charles H. Weigle United States Magistrate Judge

         This is a review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff Darren Kevin Cooper's application for benefits. Because the ALJ gave inadequate consideration to Plaintiff's right-hand limitations, it is RECOMMENDED that this case be REMANDED to the Commissioner for a reevaluation of the evidence.


         Plaintiff applied for Social Security benefits in May 2012, alleging disability beginning on November 25, 2011, due primarily to rheumatoid arthritis. (R. 78). After Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, (R. 69-106), a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 13, 2015. At that hearing, the ALJ noted the lack of objective medical evidence corroborating Plaintiff's allegations of rheumatoid arthritis. (R. 39). Plaintiff's counsel additionally argued that Plaintiff had a diagnosis of right ulnar nerve palsy, which limited Plaintiff's ability to use his dominant right hand. (R. 37).

         On August 7, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable opinion, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The ALJ found that Plaintiff “credibly ha[d] degenerative changes in his right hand and symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, ” but the ALJ determined that there was “no evidence of an inability to perform fine and gross [right-hand] movements.” (R. 25). The ALJ therefore drew no distinction between Plaintiff's ability to use his left and right hands, finding in particular that Plaintiff could “frequently handle and finger.” (R. 17). Plaintiff subsequently sought further administrative review before the Appeals Council, but on January 5, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review in Plaintiff's case. Plaintiff now seeks review before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is limited to a determination of whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence, as well as whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). “Substantial evidence” is defined as “more than a scintilla, ” and as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. The Eleventh Circuit has explained that reviewing courts may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute their judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. Rather, if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the decision must be affirmed even if the evidence preponderates against it.


         Social Security claimants are “disabled” if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable 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 of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled: “(1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v)).


         Few medical records are available in this case. The available records begin in June 2012, when Plaintiff sought treatment at the Medical Center of Central Georgia for skin lesions, a swollen mole, chronic hand pain, and a refill of his hypertension medication. (R. 328). The record appears to state that Plaintiff had suffered from tingling in his fingers “for many years[, ] now worse.” (R. 328).

         In August 2012, Plaintiff reported for a consultative examination with Dr. William Hutchings. (Ex. 3F). Plaintiff reported suffering from rheumatoid arthritis that “began as tingling in the little fingers but now has spread to his entire hand.” (R. 309). Plaintiff also reported stiffness, decreased sensation and loss of grip. (R. 309). Dr. Hutchings conducted a neurological exam and found that Plaintiff had reduced right-hand grip and pinch strength, as well as reduced distal strength of the right hand. (R. 310, 317). Dr. Hutchings also noted that “[t]here were no deformities in [Plaintiff's] hands but both were painful to palpation across the MCP joints, and there was mild hypothenar atrophy in the right hand.” (R. 310). Dr. Hutchings stated that his examination findings were not consistent with rheumatoid arthritis, but instead consistent with a “Right ...

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