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Higgins v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

April 26, 2017

SANDRA HIGGINS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER AFFIRMING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER

          S. THOMAS ANDERSON CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sandra Higgins filed this action to obtain judicial review of Defendant Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on April 6, 2011. On July 27, 2011, the ALJ denied the claim. The Appeals Council subsequently denied the request for review. Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner's final decision. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a claimant may obtain judicial review of any final decision made by the Commissioner after a hearing to which he was a party. “The court shall have the power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.”[1] The court's review is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision, [2] and whether the correct legal standards were applied.[3]

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”[4] It is “more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance.”[5] The Commissioner, not the Court, is charged with the duty to weigh the evidence, to make credibility determinations and resolve material conflicts in the testimony, and to decide the case accordingly.[6] When substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination, it is conclusive, even if substantial evidence also supports the opposite conclusion.[7]

         Plaintiff was born on September 18, 1966, and she completed the sixth grade. Plaintiff had past relevant work experience as a maid, packager, assembler, and hotel clerk. She alleges disability due to seizures, osteoarthritis, COPD, hypertension, depression, fibromyalgia, and restless leg syndrome with an alleged onset date of March 29, 2000. Plaintiff smokes up to one-and-a-half packs of cigarettes per day and admits to a history of drug use.

         The ALJ made the following findings: (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date; (2) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: status/post cervical and/or endometrial cancer, COPD, epilepsy, fibrocystic disease, degenerative joint disease, hypertension, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, GERD, non-specific colitis, lumbar disc disease, mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and a depressive disorder; but she does not have impairments, either alone or in combination, that meet or equal the requirements of any listed impairment contained in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 of the listing of impairments; (3) Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with no exposure to concentrated fumes, gases, dust, odors, chemicals, poorly ventilated areas or hazards; (4) Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a hotel clerk; (5) Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Act at any time through the date of this decision.

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.[8] The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing an entitlement to benefits.[9] The initial burden of going forward is on the claimant to show that she is disabled from engaging in her former employment; the burden of going forward then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background.[10]

         The Commissioner conducts the following, five-step analysis to determine if an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act:

1. An individual who is engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be disabled regardless of medical findings.
2. An individual who does not have a severe impairment will not be found to be disabled.
3. A finding of disability will be made without consideration of vocational factors, if an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment which meets the duration requirement and which meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of the regulations.
4. An individual who can perform work that he has done in the past will not be found to be disabled.
5. If an individual cannot perform his or her past work, other factors including age, education, past work experience and residual functional capacity must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.[11]

         Further review is not necessary if it is determined that an individual is not disabled at any point in this sequential analysis.[12] Here, the sequential analysis proceeded to the fourth step with a finding that Plaintiff can perform her past relevant work. The Court finds that substantial evidence supports this determination.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's finding that she retains the residual functional capacity to perform her past relevant work as a hotel clerk as she performed it is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not consider all of her impairments as required by 20 C.F.R. § 416.945 and SSR 96-8p. According to Plaintiff, the ALJ failed to evaluate the impact that each impairment had individually and in combination on her ability to perform her past relevant work and that, absent such analysis, meaningful judicial review of the ALJ's finding is not possible. Plaintiff's arguments are not persuasive.

         As noted above, the initial burden of going forward is on Plaintiff to show that she is disabled from engaging in her former employment; once she makes that showing, the burden of going forward shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate the existence of available employment compatible with the claimant's disability and background.[13] Accordingly, it is Plaintiff's burden to prove that she has disabling limitations, not the ALJ's. The mere fact that Plaintiff has a diagnosis or diagnoses does not mean that she has disabling limitations because a diagnosis, in and of itself, “says nothing about the severity of the condition.”[14] Instead, the ALJ must consider the actual work-related impact of those diagnoses.

         Here, in arriving at the residual functional capacity finding, the ALJ relied on the assessment of Dr. Donita Keown, an examining physician, who concluded that, in light of the physical findings, there was no evidence to suggest that Plaintiff required a restricted work environment.[15] The ALJ did not accord significant weight to the opinion of Dr. Tanveer Aslam, Plaintiff's treating physician, that Plaintiff could sit for no more than four hours in an eight-hour day, and could tolerate exposure to some environmental irritants, but not others, including noise, because it was not supported by the medical evidence of record.[16]

         The ALJ noted that Dr. Aslam failed to indicate to what extent Plaintiff would be able to tolerate certain environmental conditions, such as exposure to dust, but would have problems with others, such as fumes. With respect to Dr. Aslam's attributing the limitations to Plaintiff's COPD, he did not support this opinion with reference to spirometry or other tests, and Plaintiff admittedly continued to smoke, thus undermining her subjective allegations of disabling lung disease. As to Dr. Aslam's opinion that Plaintiff was limited based on her seizure disorder, the record shows only occasionally reported seizures, and her seizure disorder was otherwise consistently noted to be controlled.[17] Additionally, Dr. Aslam's conclusory opinion that Plaintiff could not perform any meaningful job activity, without more, was not entitled to any weight.[18]

         The ALJ also considered the assessment of Dr. John Woods, another examining physician, but did not accord significant weight to his opinion. The ALJ noted that his opinion appeared to be based solely on Plaintiff's subjective complaints and was inconsistent with the objective evidence of record. Dr. Woods's only positive objective finding involved minimal limitation in flexion of Plaintiff's cervical spine.[19] Additionally, earlier nerve conduction studies were interpreted as normal and x-rays of Plaintiff's lumbar spine were unremarkable with normal alignment and no significant disc degeneration.[20] Moreover, an MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine was interpreted as remarkable for only mild degenerative facet hypertrophy, which produced very mild bilateral neural foraminal narrowing.[21] Thus, Dr. Woods's opinion, like Dr. Aslam's, was inconsistent with the medical evidence.[22]

         The regulations require that, if the opinion of the claimant's treating physician is ‘“well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques' and [is] ‘not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, '” it must be given “controlling weight.”[23] “If the opinion of a treating source is not accorded controlling weight, an ALJ must apply certain factors - namely, the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, supportability of the opinion, consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, and the specialization of the treating source - in determining what weight to give the opinion.”[24] Even if the ...


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