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Fluker v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

November 24, 2014



HARWELL G. DAVIS, III, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the undersigned magistrate judge based on the consent of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and LR 73.2. Plaintiff, Sharon Fluker, protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits on July 28, 2011, alleging that she became unable to work on February 11, 2010. (Tr. 47, 185). Plaintiff reported her disabling conditions as high blood pressure, knee and wrist problems, and arthritis. (Tr. 224). A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on August 13, 2012. The hearing was continued to allow a Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) claim to be filed with a protective filing date of July 28, 2011, and alleged onset date of February 10, 2010, the day following a prior ALJ decision. (Tr. 102-06). However, no such petition was filed by the time of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 25). A hearing was held on plaintiff's other claims on December 19, 2012. (Tr. 40).

On January 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's application (Tr. 25-35), and the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-3). This case is now ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

I. ALJ Decision

Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). "Substantial work activity" is work that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a). "Gainful work activity" is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526. If such criteria are met, the claimant is declared disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still find disability under the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ first must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), which refers to the claimant's ability to work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). In the fourth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is determined to be capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled. Id. If the ALJ finds that the claimant is unable to perform past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In the last part of the analysis, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is able to perform any other work commensurate with his RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the ALJ to prove the existence in significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can do given the RFC, age, education and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 404.1560(c).

The ALJ found, after the hearing, that plaintiffhas the following severe impairments: arthritis, hypertension, and obesity. (Tr. 27). According to the ALJ, the plaintiff 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. (Tr. 27).

The ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except that due to the history of "scoped" knees and arthritis, she would be limited to lifting ten pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. The ALJ found that plaintiff had a good range of motion with other joints and hands for fine and gross manipulation. She would be able to stand and/or walk for four to six hours and she could sit for six to eight hours. She has no problems interfacing with other people. (Tr. 28).

According to the ALJ, plaintiff has past relevant work as a poultry hanger, poultry hand and catcher, and jack pallet driver. She determined that plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Nonetheless, a vocational expert (VE) testified that, considering all of plaintiff's limitations, she stillwould be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as vacuum form operators, molding machine tenders, and stamping machine tenders. The VE testified that there were substantial number of such jobs in Alabama and the nation. In arriving at his determination, the VE did factor in a sit/stand option for plaintiff. (Tr. 34).

Based on the testimony of the VE and the other record evidence, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was "not disabled." (Tr. 34).

II. Standard of Review

The only issues before this court are whether the record reveals substantial evidence to sustain the ALJ's decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v. Brown, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) mandates that the Commissioner's findings are conclusive if supported by "substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, re-evaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. See id. (citing Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of evidence; "[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's factual findings must be affirmed even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. While the court acknowledges that judicial review of ...

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