United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division
STEPHEN HYLES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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).
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. 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). 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.
plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving that she is
unable to perform her 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 her 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.
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
(“RFC”), 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.
Audrey Russell applied for disability insurance benefits on
November 21, 2014, alleging she became disabled to work on
November 6, 2013. Her claim was initially denied on April 2,
2015, and upon reconsideration on June 18, 2015. She timely
requested an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ on August 10,
2015, and the hearing was conducted on May 19, 2017.
Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with her attorney and gave
testimony as did an impartial vocational expert
(“VE”). Tr. 16. On November 6, 2017, the ALJ
issued an unfavorable decision denying her application. Tr.
13-39. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council but was
denied on July 9, 2018. Tr. 1-6. 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
OF FACTS AND EVIDENCE
date the ALJ rendered her decision Plaintiff was fifty-one
years of age. Tr. 34. She has a high school general
equivalency diploma and past relevant work as a floor layer,
assembler of electric motors, automobile body worker,
security guard, and machine set-up operator. Finding 6, Tr.
32. In conducting the five-step sequential analysis of her
claim, as prescribed in the Commissioner's regulations
governing the evaluation of disability applications, the ALJ
found, at step two, that Plaintiff has severe impairments of
mood disorder and organic mental disorder. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520 (c). Finding 3, Tr. 18-23. At step three, she
determined that Plaintiff's impairments, considered both
alone and in combination with one another, neither meet nor
medically equal a listed impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Finding 4, Tr. 23-24. Between
steps three and four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff to have the
RFC to engage in medium work with added exertional, postural,
environmental, and non-exertional limitations. Finding 5, Tr.
24-32. At step four, she found that this restricted RFC
precluded Plaintiff from resuming any of her past relevant
work. Finding 6, Tr. 32. The ALJ elicited testimony from the
VE that Plaintiff can work as a linen room attendant, counter
supply worker, or coffee maker within her restricted RFC and,
therefore, found her to be not disabled. Findings 10, 11, Tr.
brief before the Court, Plaintiff raises one contention of
error, that the ALJ gave insufficient weight to the opinions
of her treating physicians, Drs. Brawner, Doerr and Poling.
Pl.'s Br.1, ECF No. 13. The Commissioner responds that
the ALJ had good cause to give the assigned weight to each
treatment provider and her decision is supported by
substantial evidence. Comm'r's Br. 1, ECF No. 17. The
Court addresses each treatment provider in the order in which
Plaintiff raised them. Further, the Court notes that these
three are not the only treatment providers Plaintiff has seen
for her impairments, but they are the only providers who gave
opinions supportive of her claim of disability to work.
Brawner, Ph.D., is a psychologist who treated Plaintiff and
was her sole mental health provider. Plaintiff began seeing
Dr. Brawner on April 24, 2014, after a referral from Drs.
Doerr and Poling on April 1, 2014. Tr. 584, 556, 851. The
referral was made as part of a worker's compensation
claim Plaintiff was pursuing after a closed head injury which
occurred in the course of her employment. Id. At
issue here is Dr. Brawner's May 9, 2017, opinion-set out
in a checklist form-entitled “Medical Opinion Re:
Ability To Do Work-Related Activities (Mental).” Tr.
458. In the opinion, Dr. Brawner endorsed mental limitations
that would be disabling, including her assessment that
Plaintiff has “no useful ability to function” in
work-like procedures, would be off task one-quarter of a
typical work day, and would be absent from work more than
four days per month. Tr. 848-850. The ALJ assigned only
“limited weight” ...