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Dukes v. Colvin

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

February 4, 2015

ALONZO LEE DUKES, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHARON LOVELACE BLACKBURN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Alonzo Lee Dukes, Jr., brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ["DIB"]. Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the court is of the opinion that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Mr. Dukes filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on April 13, 2010, alleging disability beginning on July 18, 2005. (Doc. 4-3 at R.31.)[1] His application was denied initially. ( Id. ) Thereafter, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ["ALJ"], which was held on January 20, 2012, in Birmingham, Alabama. ( Id. ) After the hearing, the ALJ found that Mr. Dukes was able to perform his "past relevant work as a hospital cleaner, a cultured marble products maker, a rental salesman, [and] a loan branch manager." ( Id. at R.39.) In light of these findings, the ALJ found that Mr. Dukes was not disabled. ( Id. at R.31.)

Mr. Dukes then requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. ( Id. at R.25.) The Appeals Council "found no reason under [its] rules to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision. Therefore, [it] denied [Mr. Dukes's] request for review." ( Id. at R.10.) The ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. )

Following denial of review by the Appeals Council, Mr. Dukes filed an appeal in this court. ( See generally doc. 1.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court's role is a narrow one: "Our review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to an inquiry into whether there is substantial evidence to support the findings of the Commissioner, and whether the correct legal standards were applied." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988). The court gives deference to factual findings and reviews questions of law de novo. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). The court "may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], rather [it] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cor. 1990)(quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir.1983))(internal quotations and other citation omitted). "The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence." Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1221 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990); Allen v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 600, 602 (11th Cir. 1987)). "Substantial evidence" is "more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Winschel v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011)(internal quotations and citations omitted)

Conclusions of law made by the Commissioner are reviewed de novo. Cornelius, 936 F.2d at 1145. "No... presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law." Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982).

III. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for a period of disability and DIB. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2); see also Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470 (1986). "The term disability' means - (A) [the] inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months...." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1). The specific steps in the evaluation process are as follows:

1. Substantial Gainful Employment

First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 137 (1987). The regulations define "substantial gainful activity" as "work activity that is both substantial and gainful."[2] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the claimant is working and that work is substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition or his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). "Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that [he] is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity." Reynolds-Buckley v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012).[3]

The ALJ found that Mr. Dukes had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 18, 2005, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2010, the date last insured. (Doc. 4-3 at R.33.)

2. Severe Impairments

If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c). "[A] physical or mental impairment' is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). The regulations provide: "[I]f you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled. We will not consider your age, education, and work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). "An impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience." Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments even though none of the individual impairments alone are disabling. Walker v. Brown, 826 F.2d 996, 1001 (11th Cir. 1985); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. A claimant has the burden to show that he has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863.

The ALJ found that Mr. Dukes had the following severe impairments: "cluster headaches, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and a history of polysubstance ...


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