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Hamilton v. Berryhill

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

June 2, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Barbara E. Hamilton (hereinafter “Plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381, et seq. On May 2, 2017, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 21). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for benefits on December 28, 2012, alleging disability beginning December 28, 2012, [2] based on problems with her feet, back, and legs, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. (Doc. 14-1 at 2, 6).[3]Plaintiff's application was denied and upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Jerome L. Munford (hereinafter “ALJ”) on July 7, 2014. (Doc. 13 at 211). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Doc. 13 at 217). A vocational expert (“VE”) also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Doc. 13 at 248). On October 16, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Doc. 13 at 195). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 21, 2016. (Doc. 13 at 9). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated October 16, 2014, became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was conducted on May 31, 2017 (Doc. 25), and the parties agree that this case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         II. Issues on Appeal

         1. Whether the ALJ erred in failing to find Plaintiff's depression and headaches to be severe impairments?

         2. Whether the ALJ's RFC for a range of light work is supported by substantial evidence?

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on October 13, 1962, and was fifty-one years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on July 7, 2014. (Doc. 14-1 at 2; Doc. 13 at 211, 217-18). Plaintiff graduated from high school taking regular classes. (Doc. 13 at 218; Doc. 14-1 at 7).

         Plaintiff worked from 2007 to 2009 as an in-home child care provider. (Doc. 14-1 at 7; Doc. 13 at 218). In 2003, she worked as an equipment operator and a flagger for a construction company, and from 1984 to 1999, she worked as a grader at a catfish plant. (Doc. 14-1 at 7; Doc. 13 at 219-20). At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she cannot work due to pain in her legs, knee, back, shoulder, and neck. (Doc. 13 at 221).

         IV. Standard of Review

         In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining 1) whether the decision of the Secretary is supported by substantial evidence and 2) whether the correct legal standards were applied.[4] Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (holding substantial evidence is defined as “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance” and consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable, as well as unfavorable, to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).

         V. Statutory And Regulatory Framework

         An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512, 416.912. Disability is defined as the “inability 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant has proven his disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The claimant must first prove that he or she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity. The second step requires the claimant to prove that he or she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. If, at the third step, the claimant proves that the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience. If the claimant cannot prevail at the third step, he or she must proceed to the fourth step where the claimant must prove an inability to perform their past relevant work. Jones v. Bowen, 810 F.2d 1001, 1005 (11th Cir. 1986). In evaluating whether the claimant has met this burden, the examiner must consider the following four factors: (1) objective medical facts and clinical findings; (2) diagnoses of examining physicians; (3) evidence of pain; and (4) the claimant's age, education and work history. Id. Once a claimant meets this burden, it becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove at the fifth step that the claimant is capable of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment which exists in significant numbers in the national economy, given the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work history. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985). If the Commissioner can demonstrate that there are such jobs the claimant can perform, the claimant must prove inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999). See also Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Francis v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 1562, 1564 (11th Cir. 1985)).

         VI. Discussion

         A. The ALJ did not err in failing to find that Plaintiff's depression and headaches are severe impairments.

         In this case, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to find that her depression and headaches are severe impairments. (Doc. 17 at 2, 4-6). Specifically, with respect to her depression, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ acknowledged that she had been diagnosed with depression, but improperly found that her condition was no more than a slight abnormality that would not be expected to produce more than minimal limitations. (Id.). With respect to her headaches, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not even discuss ...

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