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Langer v. Berryhill

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

April 19, 2017

FLOYD LANGER, JR. Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Social Security Commissioner Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KATHERINE P. NELSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) Plaintiff, Floyd Langer, Jr. (“Langer” or “Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of an adverse social security ruling denying a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Docs. 1, 13). With the consent of the parties, the Court has designated the undersigned Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in this civil action, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, and S.D. Ala. GenLR 73. (See Docs. 22, 24). Oral argument was heard on March 10, 2017. After considering the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED and that this action be DISMISSED.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on May 29, 2013, asserting a disability onset date of January 28, 2011. (Tr. at 200-203). Plaintiff's claim was denied at the Administrative level after which Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. (TR. at 124, 134). Plaintiff attended a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ”) on November 13, 2014, and the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on December 19, 2014. (TR. at 16-52).

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-seven years old with a high school diploma, an Associate's Degree in Business Administration and a significant previous work history, including experience as a Corrections Officer until he resigned in 2008. (Doc. 13; Fact Sheet; TR. at 39-40, 42, and 47). Plaintiff alleges he is disabled due to obesity, bilateral arthritis of the ankles, back pain, and anxiety. (Doc. 13; Fact Sheet). On December 19, 2014, an ALJ denied benefits after determining that Plaintiff was not disabled and was able to work in his previous position as a Corrections Officer. (TR. at 26). Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision, but the Appeals Council denied the request on June 17, 2016. (TR. at 1-6).

         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ committed reversible error (1) in that the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) was not supported by substantial evidence, (2) in failing to fulfill her duty to develop the record by ordering a consultative orthopedic examination, and (3) in failing to find that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairment of back pain and anxiety. (Doc. 13 at 1-2). Defendant has responded to-and denies-these claims. (Doc. 16).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is ‘ “supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (internal citation omitted) (quoting Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997))). However, the Court “ ‘may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner].' ” Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004) (alteration in original) (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983))). “ ‘Even if the evidence preponderates against the [Commissioner]'s factual findings, we must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.' ” Ingram, 496 F.3d at 1260 (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         “Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [courts] do not act as automatons. [The court] must scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence[.]” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239 (citations and quotation omitted). See also Owens v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 1511, 1516 (11th Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (“We are neither to conduct a de novo proceeding, nor to rubber stamp the administrative decisions that come before us. Rather, our function is to ensure that the decision was based on a reasonable and consistently applied standard, and was carefully considered in light of all the relevant facts.”). “In determining whether substantial evidence exists, [a court] must…tak[e] into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the [Commissioner's] decision.” Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986).

         Although the “claimant bears the burden of demonstrating the inability to return to [his or] her past relevant work, the Commissioner of Social Security has an obligation to develop a full and fair record.” Shnorr v. Bowen, 816 F.2d 578, 581 (11th Cir. 1987). See also Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (“It is well-established that the ALJ has a basic duty to develop a full and fair record. Nevertheless, the claimant bears the burden of proving that he is disabled, and, consequently, he is responsible for producing evidence in support of his claim.” (citations omitted)). “This is an onerous task, as the ALJ must scrupulously and conscientiously probe into, inquire of, and explore for all relevant facts. In determining whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ must consider the evidence as a whole.” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citation and quotation omitted).

         Where, as here, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied review of that decision, the Court “review[s] the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision.” Doughty, 245 F.3d at 1278. “[W]hen the [Appeals Council] has denied review, [the Court] will look only to the evidence actually presented to the ALJ in determining whether the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1323 (11th Cir. 1998).

         DISCUSSION

         Langer asserts that the ALJ erred in assigning a RFC that was not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 13 at 2-6). Plaintiff additionally claims that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record by not ordering a physical consultation and by not finding Plaintiff's impairments of back pain and anxiety to be severe. (Id. at 6-9). The undersigned will address each alleged assignment of error in turn.

         A. Whether the RFC was supported by ...


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