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Duckson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

March 31, 2015

DALE DUCKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

STACI G. CORNELIUS, Magistrate Judge.

The plaintiff, Dale Duckson, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Duckson timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the Commissioner's decision is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

I. Procedural History

Duckson has a high school education and has previously worked as a press operator, automobile mechanic, and delivery driver. (Tr. at 46, 51). In his initial applications for DIB and SSI, Duckson alleged emphysema and leg problems with an initial onset date of April 23, 2008. (Tr. at 51-52, 133, 140, 157). After his claims were denied, Duckson requested reconsideration, alleging a variety of additional ailments, including increased pain, discomfort, and numbness down the entire left side of his body, high blood pressure and cholesterol, stomach issues, muscle spasms, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. (Id. at 55, 58, 182). After his claims were again denied, Duckson requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 67, 73, 80). Following a hearing held on July 15, 2011, the ALJ denied Duckson's claims. (Id. at 10-16). Duckson was fifty-three years old when the ALJ issued his decision on August 25, 2011. (Id. at 26). After the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on December 20, 2012, that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1-3). Duckson initiated this action on February 25, 2013. (Doc. 1).

II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

To establish his eligibility for disability benefits, a claimant must show "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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security Administration employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). "Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that [he] is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity." Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.App'x 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) and (b), 416.920(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first step, the ALJ determined Duckson met the Social Security Administration's insured status requirements through March 31, 2011, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 23, 2008, the alleged onset date of his disability. (Tr. at 11-12).

If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment "must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." Furthermore, it "must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms." Id. at §§ 404.908, 416.908; see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D). An impairment is severe if it "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities...." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).[2] "[A]n 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), 416.921(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments, even though none of the individual impairments alone is disabling. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. The claimant bears the burden of providing medical evidence demonstrating an impairment and its severity. Id. at §§ 404.1512(a) and (c), 416.912(a) and (c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) and (c). At the second step, the ALJ determined Duckson has the following severe impairments: lower back pain and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"). (Tr. at 12).

If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment meet or equal one of the "Listings" found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); see also id. at §§ 404.1525-26, 416.925-26. The claimant bears the burden of proving his impairment meet or equal one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.App'x at 863. If the claimant's impairment meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and (d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ found that Duckson does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. at 12).

If the claimant's impairment do not meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") before proceeding to the fourth step. Id. at §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e); see also id. at §§ 404.1545, 416.945. A claimant's RFC is the most he can do despite his impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare her assessment of the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 404.1560(b), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 416.960(b). "Past relevant work is work that [the claimant] [has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it." Id. §§ 404.1560(b)(1), 416.960(b)(1). The claimant bears the burden of proving his impairment prevent him from performing his past relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.App'x at 863. If the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1560(b)(3), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.960(b)(3). Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ found Duckson has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except that he can only occasionally climb stairs, kneel, climb ladders, stoop, crouch, balance, crawl, or work with hazards (e.g., heights, moving parts, etc.). (Tr. at 12-13). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Duckson is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 15).

If the claimant is unable to perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner must finally determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 404.1560(c)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.960(c)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 416.920(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is disabled. Id. At the fifth step, considering Duckson's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Duckson can perform, such as those of a packager or a clearner. (Tr. at 15-16). Therefore, the ALJ concluded Duckson was not disabled and denied his claims. (Id. at 16).

III. Standard of Review

Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A district court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district court must "scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence." Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. It is "more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Id. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

A district court reviews the Commissioner's legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). "The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal." Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

IV. Discussion

Duckson raises the following issues in his appeal: (1) the ALJ's finding he did not meet a listed impairment is not based on substantial evidence, (2) application of Grid Rule 201.12 or 201.14 direct a finding of disability, (3) his treating physician's opinion should have been given controlling weight, (4) the ALJ's credibility finding is not based on substantial evidence, (5) the ALJ disregarded the vocational expert's response to a hypothetical posed by his attorney, and (6) his current age support remand of the Commissioner's decision.

A. Listing 1.04A

First, Duckson argues the ALJ's determination his impairment does not meet Listing 1.04A is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 9 at 4-6). Duckson claims his medical records show a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, a limited range of motion of his spine, muscle atrophy, a loss of muscle strength, numbness down his leg and into his foot, and a positive straight-leg raising ("SLR") test bilaterally. (Id. at 5).

A plaintiff is disabled if his impairment meet or equal a Listing. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and (d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). "To meet' a Listing, a claimant must have a diagnosis included in the Listings and must provide medical reports documenting that the conditions meet the specific criteria of the Listings and the duration requirement." Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a)-(d)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a)-(d). "To equal' a Listing, the medical findings must be at least equal in severity and duration to the listed findings.'" Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1224 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(a)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.926(a). A claimant's impairment must meet or equal all of the specified medical criteria in a particular Listing for the claimant to be found disabled at step three of the sequential evaluation. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530-32 (1990). An impairment that manifests only some of the criteria do not qualify, no matter how severe. Id. at 530. A claimant's burden of proving his impairment meet or equal a Listing is a heavy one because "the [L]istings were designed to operate as a presumption of disability that makes further inquiry unnecessary." Id. at 532.

Listing 1.04A provides for disability where there is a disorder of the spine, such as degenerative disc disease, resulting in compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord, with

A. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the ...

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