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Aldridge v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

May 26, 2017




         Plaintiff Kim M. Aldridge has applied for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Commissioner of Social Security's decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II and supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Docket 1. Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on July 8, 2013. Docket 7 at 172-74; 180-84. In both applications, Plaintiff alleges disability beginning on July 1, 2012.[1] Id.

         The agency administratively denied both of Plaintiff's claims initially on August 12, 2013 (Id. at 58-64; 65-71) and on reconsideration on September 30, 2013. Id. at 76-82; 83-89. Plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Robert Hodum held on April 7, 2015. Id. at 110-11, 143-47. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 29, 2015. Id. at 11-18. The Appeals Council denied her request for review on August 8, 2016. Id. at 1-4. Plaintiff timely filed this appeal from the August 8, 2016, decision, the undersigned held a hearing on April 26, 2016, and it is now ripe for review.

         Because both parties have consented to a magistrate judge conducting all the proceedings in this case as provided in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the undersigned has the authority to issue this opinion and the accompanying final judgment. Docket 10.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff was born June 26, 1979, and was 35 years old at the time of the ALJ hearing. Docket 7 at 33. She is considered to be a younger individual for the purpose of determining disability benefits. Id. at 17. Plaintiff has a twelfth grade education and past relevant work as a warehouse worker and hand packager. Id. at 36, 47. Plaintiff contends she became disabled as a result of lupus, her inability to stand for long periods of time, swelling in her legs, and back cramps. Id. at 227. At the ALJ hearing, counsel for Plaintiff stated that she has lupus, hypertension, lumbar degenerative disease, facet arthropathy, and chronic fatigue. Id. at 30. Plaintiff testified that her lupus causes flare ups lasting two to three days approximately twice a month. Id. at 37. During a flare up, Plaintiff has difficulty using her hands, specifically gripping or grasping objects, buttoning, zipping, typing or writing. Id. at 40. She also has difficulty bending, stopping or squatting and experiences severe headaches which may last between five and six hours or up to three days. Id. at 41, 44.

         The ALJ established that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 23, 2013, the amended alleged onset date. Id. at 13. Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff experienced the severe impairment of systemic lupus erythematosus but that Plaintiff's impairment did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926). Id. at 13-14.

         Considering Plaintiff's severe impairment, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's demonstrated abilities were consistent with a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform a full range of light work. Id. at 14-17. In making this determination, the ALJ relied heavily on the opinions of the state agency evaluating and consulting physicians-Dr. Madena Gibson and Dr. Karen Hulett-who concluded that Plaintiff had exertional limitations but could occasionally lift and/or carry twenty pounds; frequently lift and/or carry ten pounds; and sit, stand, and/or walk about six hours in an eight-hour workday. Id. at 61-62, 68-69.

         Based on his review of the medical evidence in conjunction with Plaintiff's own statements about her symptoms and their effects, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible” because they are “inconsistent with the treatment notes, which do not document flareups to the frequency and severity alleged.” Id. at 15-16. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff's statements regarding medication side effects are contradicted by treatment notes indicating that she tolerated her medicines well. Id. at 16. The ALJ discussed specific inconsistencies between treating physician Dr. Amy Woods' opinions and the other record evidence and afforded Dr. Wood's opinions little weight. Id. at 16-17. Finding the opinions of the state agency evaluating physician and state agency consulting physician consistent with the record as a whole, the ALJ afforded these opinions great weight in formulating Plaintiff's RFC. Id. at 17.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC precludes her ability to perform past relevant work; however, based on her residual functional capacity for the full range of light work, “there are jobs that exist in the significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” Id. at 17-18. The ALJ ultimately ruled that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 23, 2013, through April 29, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. Id.

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred by giving the opinion of a non-examining physician greater weight than the examining physician's opinion and by failing to properly assess the treating physician's opinion. Docket 11 at 3. Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ failed to evaluate all of the record evidence and erred in not considering Plaintiff's arthritis to be a severe impairment. Id.


         In determining disability, the Commissioner, through the ALJ, works through a five-step sequential evaluation process.[2] The burden rests upon the plaintiff throughout the first four steps of this five-step process to prove disability, and if the plaintiff is successful in sustaining her burden at each of the first four levels, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.[3]First, the plaintiff must prove she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.[4]Second, the plaintiff must prove her impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .”[5] At step three the ALJ must conclude that plaintiff is disabled if she proves that her impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.09 (2010).[6]If the plaintiff does not meet this burden, at step four she must prove that she is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work.[7] At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, considering the plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience, that she is capable of performing other work.[8] If the Commissioner proves other work exists which the plaintiff can perform, plaintiff is given the chance to prove that she cannot, in fact, perform that work.[9]

         III. ...

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