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Creasman v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 12, 2019


         Social Security Appeal



         Social Security Appeal The Social Security Commissioner, by adoption of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) determination, denied Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits, finding that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and accompanying regulations. Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's decision was in error and seeks review under the relevant provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c). All administrative remedies have been exhausted. Both parties filed their written consents for all proceedings to be conducted by the United States Magistrate Judge, including the entry of a final judgment directly appealable to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether it is supported by substantial evidence and whether the correct legal standards were applied. Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 1000 (11th Cir. 1987) (per curiam). “Substantial evidence is something more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The court may neither decide facts, re-weigh evidence, nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.[1] Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). It must, however, decide if the Commissioner applied the proper standards in reaching a decision. Harrell v. Harris, 610 F.2d 355, 359 (5th Cir. 1980) (per curiam).[2] The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the Commissioner's factual findings. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). However, even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must be affirmed if substantial evidence supports it. Id.

         The plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that he is unable to perform his previous work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001 (11th Cir. 1986). The plaintiff's burden is a heavy one and is so stringent that it has been described as bordering on the unrealistic. Oldham v. Schweiker, 660 F.2d 1078, 1083 (5th Cir. 1981). A plaintiff seeking Social Security disability benefits must demonstrate that she suffers from an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a twelve-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In addition to meeting the requirements of these statutes, in order to be eligible for disability payments, a plaintiff must meet the requirements of the Commissioner's regulations promulgated pursuant to the authority given in the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1 et seq.

         Under the Regulations, the Commissioner uses a five-step procedure to determine if a plaintiff is disabled. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). First, the Commissioner determines whether the plaintiff is working. Id. If not, the Commissioner determines whether the plaintiff has an impairment which prevents the performance of basic work activities. Id. Second, the Commissioner determines the severity of the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments. Id. Third, the Commissioner determines whether the plaintiff's severe impairment(s) meets or equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 of Part 404 of the Regulations (the “Listing”). Id. Fourth, the Commissioner determines whether the plaintiff's residual functional capacity can meet the physical and mental demands of past work. Id. Fifth, and finally, the Commissioner determines whether the plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience prevent the performance of any other work. In arriving at a decision, the Commissioner must consider the combined effects of all of the alleged impairments, without regard to whether each, if considered separately, would be disabling. Id. The Commissioner's failure to apply correct legal standards to the evidence is grounds for reversal. Id.


         Plaintiff Teresa Creasman applied for disability insurance benefits on November 14, 2014, initially alleging that she became disabled to work on April 6, 2012. She subsequently amended her application to allege disability beginning on February 15, 2013. Her application was denied initially on March 10, 2015, and again after reconsideration on September 8, 2015. She made a timely written request for an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge on October 15, 2015, and the hearing was held on August 2, 2017. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with her attorney and gave testimony as did an impartial vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 11. On December 11, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying her application. Tr. 8-25. Plaintiff next sought review by the Appeals Council, but was denied on June 22, 2018. Tr. 1-5. Having exhausted the administrative remedies available to her under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her claim for benefits.


         Plaintiff was fifty-three years of age on her amended alleged onset date. She has a high school education and past relevant work as a nurse assistant and teacher aide. Findings 6-8, Tr. 18-19. In conducting the five-step sequential analysis of Plaintiff's claim as established by the Commissioner for the evaluation of disability, the ALJ found, at step two, that Plaintiff has severe impairments of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obesity, and degenerative joint disease of the hands. Finding 3, Tr. 14. She then determined, at step three, that Plaintiff's impairments, considered both alone and in combination with one another, neither meet nor medically equal a listed impairment set out in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 4, Tr. 14-15. Between steps three and four, the ALJ formulated a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment which permits Plaintiff to engage in a restricted range of medium work with additional manipulative and non-exertional limitations. Finding 5, Tr. 15-18. At step four, the ALJ further found that this restricted RFC assessment does not permit Plaintiff to resume any of her past relevant work. Finding 6, Tr. 18-19. The ALJ, therefore, proceeded to step five of the analysis, and elicited testimony from the VE that Plaintiff retains sufficient residual functional capacity to work as a linen room attendant, day worker, or laundry worker. Finding 10, Tr. 19-20. Thus, she found Plaintiff to be not disabled to work. Finding 11, Tr. 20.


         In her brief before the Court, Plaintiff asserts two errors. First, she contends that the ALJ gave only little weight to the opinion of her treating psychiatrist without good cause for doing so. Pl.'s Br. 1, 8-11, ECF No. 13. She further contends that the Appeals Council erred in denying her request for review after she submitted additional evidence from a second treating physician which was new, material, chronologically relevant, and presented a reasonable probability of changing the administrative outcome of her case. Pl.'s Br. 1, 11-13; Pl.'s Reply Br. 1-2, ECF No. 18. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ had good cause to give only little weight to the treating psychiatrist's opinion and that the Appeals Council correctly determined that the new evidence submitted to it by Plaintiff is not material. Comm'r's Br. 4, 9. The Court addresses the issues in the order in which Plaintiff raised them.

         I. Treating ...

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