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Lane v. Berryhill

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

June 28, 2017

JENNIFER LYNETTE LANE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Jennifer Lynette Lane (“Ms. Lane”) 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. Lane 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. Lane was 33 years old at the time of her hearing before the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 46). She has completed the twelfth grade and two years of college. Id. Her past work experience includes employment as a secretary, office manager, and bank teller. (Tr. 46-47). Ms. Lane initially claimed she became disabled beginning September 15, 2011. (Tr. 163-64). Her last period of work ended on October 20, 2011. (Tr. 349).

         Ms. Lane first filed for DIB on February 26, 2012. (Tr. 109). Her claim was initially denied on May 14, 2012. Id. She filed a request for a hearing on May 25, 2012. (Tr. 105). Ms. Lane voluntarily dismissed her request for a hearing on October 5, 2012. Id. On February 14, 2014, Ms. Lane protectively filed her second Title II application for a period of disability and DIB. (Tr. 107). Ms. Lane amended the onset date of her disability to February 14, 2013. (Tr. 185) On May 7, 2014, the Commissioner denied Ms. Lane's application. (Tr. 125-29). Ms. Lane timely filed a written request for a hearing on May 19, 2014. (Tr. 130-31). The ALJ held the hearing on September 11, 2014, in Cullman, AL. (Tr. 17). On January 26, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision concluding that Ms. Lane was not disabled and denying her DIB claim. (Tr. 14-34). Ms. Lane timely petitioned the Appeals Council to review the decision on February 23, 2015. (Tr. 12). On April 27, 2016, the Appeals Council issued a denial of review on Ms. Lane's claim. (Tr. 1-3).

         Ms. Lane filed a Complaint with this court on May 25, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's determination. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered on August 25, 2016. (Doc. 3). Ms. Lane filed a supporting brief (doc. 8) on October 25, 2016, and the Commissioner responded with an opposing brief (doc. 9) on November 21, 2016. Ms. Lane then followed with a reply (doc. 10) to the Commissioner's brief on December 8, 2016.

         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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         This court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions 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, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. 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. Lane] meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through the date of this decision. (Tr. 19).
2. [Ms. Lane] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 14, 2013, the amended alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.). (Tr. 19).
3. [Ms. Lane] has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine at ¶ 4-5, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome verses dysautonomia, a major depressive disorder, and an anxiety disorder (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)). (Tr. 19).
4. [Ms. Lane] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). (Tr. 19-21).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, [the ALJ] finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). She can occasionally lift and/or carry twenty pounds and frequently lift and/or carry ten pounds. She can stand and/or walk in combination, with normal breaks, for at least six hours during an eight-hour workday. [Ms. Lane] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally balance stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, humidity and working in areas of vibration. [Ms. Lane] should avoid exposure to industrial hazards including working at unprotected heights and working in close proximity to moving dangerous machinery. She can perform simple routine tasks requiring no more than short simple instructions and simple work-related decision making with few work place changes. She can have occasional interactions with co-workers and supervisors, but no interactions with members of the general public. (Tr. 21-28).
6. [Ms. Lane] is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565). (Tr. 28).
7. [Ms. Lane] was 33 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1563). (Tr. 28).
8. [Ms. Lane] has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. § 404.1564). (Tr. 28).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that [Ms. Lane] is “not disabled, ” whether or not [she] has transferable job skills. See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. (Tr. 28).
10. Considering [Ms. Lane's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in the significant numbers in the national economy that [she] can perform (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569 and 404.1569 (a)). (Tr. 28-29).
11. [Ms. Lane] has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 14, 2013, through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)). (Tr. 29).

         ANALYSIS

         The court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “This does not relieve the court of its responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding.” Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)). However, the court ...


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