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Vanwinkle v. Saul

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

July 8, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, [1] Defendant.



         Pamela Jewel Vanwinkle appeals the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act. Upon consideration of the briefs submitted by both parties, the record evidence, and the relevant statutory and case law, the Court REPORTS and RECOMMENDS the Commissioner's final decision be AFFIRMED, this civil action be CLOSED, and a final judgment be ENTERED in favor of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI in June 2014, alleging a disability onset date of April 17, 2014. Tr. (“R.”), pp. 18, 183, 262. Plaintiff was thirty-three years old at her alleged disability onset date and was thirty-six years old at the time the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued the decision currently under consideration. R. 27, 260. The Commissioner's December 11, 2011 denial of a prior SSI application, (R. 103-107), is not at issue in the current appeal.

         In the 2014 application, Plaintiff applied for benefits based on allegations of bipolar disorder, ulnar nerve transposition, PTSD, depression, personality disorder, and hypothyroidism, although she testified at the administrative hearing she did not have physical limitations. R. 51, 271. Plaintiff reported obtaining her GED and cosmetology training/licenses, as well as completing some college courses. R. 42, 272. Prior to her alleged disability, Plaintiff had no past relevant work under 20 C.F.R. § 416.965, but had performed some work as a hairstylist, waitress, and telemarketer. R. 45.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application initially, R. 59-73, and on reconsideration, R. 74-92. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, R. 121-23, and the ALJ held a hearing on February 27, 2017. R. 33-58. At the hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Plaintiff, who appeared with a non-attorney representative, as well as from Ray Burger, a Vocational Expert (“VE”). Id. On August 30, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. R. 15-32.

         Applying the sequential process required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 17, 2014, the application date (20 C.F.R. § 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, depression, polysubstance abuse, morbid obesity and lumbar disc disease (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).
4. The claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except she can occasionally stoop, crouch, and climb ramps or stairs.[2] She cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can complete simple, routine and repetitive tasks. She can tolerate occasional interaction with coworkers. She can tolerate occasional interaction with the general public that is superficial in nature. She can tolerate ordinary work pressures but should avoid excessive workloads, high quotas, quick decision making, rapid changes in work tasks and multiple concurrent demands. The claimant has no past relevant work. (20 C.F.R. § 416.965).
5. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy that the claimant can perform, including housekeeper cleaner, laundry worker, and inspector, all unskilled jobs with an SVP of 2.[3] (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.969, and 416.969(a)). Therefore, the claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since April 17, 2014, the date the application was filed (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)).

R. 20-26.

         When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, R. 1-5, the Commissioner's decision became “final” for the purpose of judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff then filed this civil action requesting reversal or remand of that adverse decision. Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to properly formulate the RFC when she did not (1) include sufficiently specific work-related limitations consistent with the assessment of a consultative examiner to which the ALJ accorded significant weight, and (2) properly analyze Plaintiff's mental impairments, including her subjective complaints about them. See doc. no. 16 (“Pl.'s Br.”). The Commissioner maintains the decision to deny Plaintiff benefits is supported by substantial evidence and should therefore be affirmed. See doc. no. 17.


         Judicial review of social security cases is narrow and limited to the following questions: (1) whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). When considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the reviewing court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for the Commissioner's. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). Notwithstanding this measure of deference, the Court remains obligated to scrutinize the whole record to determine whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding. Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         The Commissioner's factual findings should be affirmed if there is substantial evidence to support them. Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance: ‘[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If the Court finds substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's factual findings, it must uphold the Commissioner even if the evidence preponderates in favor of the claimant. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158-59 (11th Cir. 2004). Finally, the Commissioner's findings of fact must be grounded in the entire record; a decision that focuses on one aspect of the evidence and disregards other contrary evidence is not based upon substantial evidence. McCruter v. Bowen, 791 F.2d 1544, 1548 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The deference accorded the Commissioner's findings of fact does not extend to his conclusions of law, which enjoy no presumption of validity. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding that judicial review of the Commissioner's legal conclusions are not subject to the substantial evidence standard). If the Commissioner fails either to apply correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with the means to determine whether correct legal standards were in fact applied, the Court must reverse the decision. Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).


         Plaintiff argues the RFC conflicts with the opinion of consultative examiner M. Kevin Turner, Ph.D., regarding Plaintiff's ability to interact appropriately with supervisors. Pl.'s Br., pp. 13-14. Relying heavily on non-binding case law outside the Eleventh Circuit, Plaintiff further argues the ALJ improperly considered gaps in medical treatment and successful treatment with medication to determine Plaintiff could handle the mental requirements of unskilled work. Id. at 14-19. Finally, Plaintiff contends her subjective complaints regarding mental ...

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