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Carden v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2017

LINDA DIANE CARDEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Linda Diane Carden, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Ms. Carden timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         Ms. Carden was fifty-one years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision. (Tr. at 34, 111.) She has a high school education. (Tr. at 35, 78-79.) Her past work experiences include employment as a Certified Nursing Assistant, a cashier, and in mobile home sales. (Tr. at 34, 69.) Ms. Carden claims that she became disabled on March 15, 2008, due to limited use of her arms, depression, anxiety, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), impaired immune system, asthma, Crohn's disease, arthritis, and migraines. (Tr. at 306, 312.)

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.

         The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).

         Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent her from performing her past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.

         The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find her not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find her disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Ms. Carden last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2012. (Tr. at 20.) She further determined that Ms. Carden did not engage in SGA during the period from her alleged onset date, March 15, 2008, through her date last insured, March 31, 2012. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), hiatal hernia, gastritis, duodenitis, degenerative changes of the cervical and lumbar spine, hypertension, migraine headaches, Crohn's disease, COPD, status post multiple nerve releases, anxiety, and depression are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 21.) However, she found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) She determined that “through the date last insured, the plaintiff has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR [§] 404.1567(b) except with the following limitations: never use feet for operation of foot controls; never kneel or crawl; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; avoid concentrated exposure to irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, poorly ventilated areas, and chemicals; avoid exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery; no assembly line production requirements; unskilled work; only occasional direct interaction with the public; and only occasional interaction with co-workers.” (Tr. at 23.)

         According to the ALJ, through the date last insured, Ms. Carden was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. at 34.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff was a “younger individual age 18-49” on the date last insured, she has at least a high school education, and she is able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 34-35.) Relying on the testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff is capable of performing, such as hand packager, labeler, and garment sorter. (Tr. at 35.) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that the plaintiff “was not under a ‘disability, ' as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time between March 15, 2008, the alleged onset date, and March 31, 2012, the date last insured.” (Tr. at 36.)

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 F.App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the proof preponderates ...


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