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Pearson v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

March 31, 2017

TERESA A. PEARSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARON LOVELACE BLACKBURN, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Teresa Pearson brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for supplemental security income [“SSI”].[1] 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

         Ms. Pearson filed an application for SSI on December 11, 2012. (Doc. 7-3 at R.12; see also doc. 7-6 at R.127.)[2] Her claim was denied initially. (Doc. 7-3 at R.12; doc. 7-4 at R.74.) Thereafter, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge [“ALJ”], which was held on October 23, 2013. (Doc. 7-3 at R.12; see id. at R.26.) After the hearing, the ALJ found that Ms. Pearson was “capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” (Id. at R.20.) In light of this finding, the ALJ denied Ms. Pearson's claim for SSI on March 17, 2014. (Id.)

         Ms. Pearson then requested the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision. (Id. at R.6.) On April 16, 2015, the Appeals Council “found no reason under [its] rules to review the [ALJ]'s decision. Therefore, [it] denied [Ms. Pearson's] request for review, ” and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at R.1.)

         The present appeal was filed on May 1, 2015. (Doc. 1.) In her Complaint, Ms. Pearson alleges, “The decision of the Defendant that the Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not supported by substantial evidence and applies an erroneous standard of law.” (Id. ¶ 5.) Ms. Pearson, who is proceeding pro se, did not file a brief or otherwise inform the court of the specific grounds for her appeal.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court's role is a narrow one, “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 the Commissioner findings of fact. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991). It “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 Cir. 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).

         Ms. Pearson, the claimant, “bears the burden of proving that [she] is disabled, and, consequently, [she] is responsible for producing evidence in support of [her] claim.” Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003)(citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a)). On appeal, Ms. Pearson has presented neither argument nor citation to the Commissioner's record in support of her allegation that the Commissioner's denial of her claim for SSI benefits is not supported by substantial evidence and that the Commissioner applied incorrect legal standards. (See doc. 1 ¶ 5.) “However, this Court shows leniency to pro se litigants. Therefore, when reviewing the appeal of a pro se plaintiff, this Court will thoroughly review the evidentiary record and the ALJ's opinion to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Billings ex rel. Wells v. Colvin, No. 2:12-CV-2777-LSC, 2014 WL 584313, *3 (N.D. Ala. Feb. 13, 2014)(citing Christiansen v. McRay, 380 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2010)).[3]

         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 SSI. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(1)-(2); Bowen v. City of New York, 476 U.S. 467, 470 (1986). “[A]n individual shall be considered to be disabled for purposes of [determining eligibility for SSI benefits] if [she] is unable 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). 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.”[4]20 C.F.R. § 416.972. 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 her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). “Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Reynolds-Buckley v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ found that Ms. Pearson had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 11, 2012, the application date. (Doc. 7-3 at R.14.)

         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 the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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. § 1382c(a)(3)(D). 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. § 416.920(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. § 416.921(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. § 416.923. A claimant has the burden to show that she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Pearson had “severe impairments [of] neurofibromatosis; depressive disorder, not otherwise specified; and anxiety.” (Doc. 7-3 at R.14.) She found Ms. Pearson's claim of insomnia was not a severe impairment because it was controlled by medication. (Id.)

         3. The Listings

         If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner must then determine whether the claimant's impairment meets the durational requirement and whether it is equivalent to any one of the listed impairments, which are impairments that are so severe as to prevent an individual with the described impairment from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d)-(e); see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 [The Listings]. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals a Listing, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled, regardless of her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). The claimant has the burden of proving that her impairment meets or equals the criteria contained in one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Pearson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically ...


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