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Lewis v. Berryhill

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

March 27, 2017

BRANDI LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Brandi Lewis (“Ms. Lewis”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. She seeks review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), [1] who denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Lewis timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Lewis was 31-years old at the time of her hearing before the administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 43). She has completed twelfth grade. (Tr. 46). Her past work experience includes employment as: (1) an inventory control worker at WalMart; (2) an assembly worker; (3) an overnight stocker; (4) a cashier; (5) a coupon machine installer and restocker; and (6) a waitress. (Tr. 77-82). Ms. Lewis claims that she became disabled on September 24, 2012. (Tr. 14). Her last period of work ended on September 24, 2012. (Tr. 16).

         On October 1, 2012, Ms. Lewis protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and DIB. (Tr. 14, 195-196). On December 13, 2012, the Commissioner initially denied her claims. (Tr. 126-130). Ms. Lewis timely filed a written request for a hearing on February 1, 2013. (Tr. 132-3). The ALJ conducted a hearing on May 1, 2014, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Tr. 14); (see also Tr. 36-91). On June 13, 2014, the ALJ issued a fully unfavorable decision concluding that Ms. Lewis was not disabled and denying her DIB claim. (Tr. 11, 14-28). Ms. Lewis then on June 25, 2014, timely petitioned the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision that was adverse to her. (Tr. 7-9). On December 11, 2015, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on her claim. (Tr. 1-3).

         Ms. Lewis filed a Complaint with this court on January 31, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered on May 5, 2016. (Doc. 8). Ms. Lewis filed a supporting brief (Doc. 10) on June 17, 2016, and the Commissioner responded with her own (Doc. 11) on July 13, 2016. With the parties having fully briefed the matter, the court has carefully considered the record and remands the decision of the Commissioner for further development.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This 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). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court. The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed de novo, because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[2] The Regulations define “disabled” as “the inability to do 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 (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a “physical or mental impairment” that “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). The sequential analysis goes as follows:

Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.

Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995).

         The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         FINDINGS OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE

         After consideration of the entire record, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. Ms. Lewis met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 20, 2017. (Tr. 16).
2. She had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 24, 2012, the alleged onset date. Id.
3. She has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease at four lower levels with right sided protrusions at ΒΆ 4-5 and L5-S1; obesity; bipolar ...

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