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Rudder v. Berryhill

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

May 25, 2017

WILLIAM RUDDER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff William Rudder (“Mr. Rudder”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. He seeks review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), [1] who denied his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[2] Mr. Rudder timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. The case is thus ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[3]

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Rudder was 61 years old at the time of his hearing before the administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 49). He has completed the twelfth grade. (Tr. 49). His past work experience includes employment as: (1) a grocery store merchandiser; (2) a merchandiser at Walmart; (3) a sales attendant at Home Depot; and (4) a jewelry salesperson. (Tr. 44-58). Mr. Rudder originally claimed that he became disabled on November 12, 2012, but he later amended his onset date to November 20, 2012. (Tr. 39). His last period of work ended on November 20, 2012. (Tr. 40).

         On January 8, 2013, Mr. Rudder protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI. (Tr. 17, 126-27). On May 15, 2013, the Commissioner initially denied his claims. (Tr. 126-127). Mr. Rudder timely filed a written request for a hearing on May 21, 2013. (Tr. 140). The ALJ conducted a hearing on June 25, 2014, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Tr. 34). On October 29, 2014, the ALJ issued a fully unfavorable decision concluding that Mr. Rudder was not disabled and denying both his DIB and SSI claims. (Tr. 17-29). Mr. Rudder then timely petitioned the Appeals Council to review the decision on November 15, 2014. (Tr. 9-11). On March 9, 2016, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on his claim. (Tr. 1-3).

         Mr. Rudder filed a Complaint with this court on May 3, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered on August 17, 2016. (Doc. 8). Mr. Rudder filed a supporting brief (Doc. 10) on September 30, 2016, and the Commissioner responded with her own (Doc. 11) on October 31, 2016. With the parties having fully briefed the matter, the court has carefully considered the record and remands the decision of the Commissioner.

         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.[4] 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. Mr. Rudder met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. (Tr. 20).
2. He has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 20, 2012, the amended alleged onset date. Id.
3. He has the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), asbestosis, fatigue, diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, obesity, and obstructive sleep apnea. Id.
4. Mr. Rudder does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 23).
5. He has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c)[5] and ยง 416.967(c), which allows for temperature controlled environment with no excessive exposure to dust, fumes, or gases; no operation of hazardous machinery; no unprotected ...

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