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Washam v. Berryhill

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

July 12, 2017

KERRY A. WASHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM E. CASSADY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Social Security Claimant/Plaintiff Kerry A. Washam brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying his applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Doc. 13 (“In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including the trial, order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”)).

         Upon consideration of the briefs of the parties, (Docs. 9-10), the administrative record, (Doc. 8), (hereinafter cited as “(R. [page number(s) in lower-right corner of transcript])”), and the arguments presented during the hearing held on February 16, 2017, it is determined that the Commissioner's decision is due to be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this decision.[2]

         I. Background

         Washam was born on March 22, 1993, (R. 207 [SSA Ex. 8E]). The highest grade of school Washam attained was eleventh grade at Leflore Magnet High School in Mobile, Alabama, and while there, he attended special education classes. (R. 174 [SSA Ex. 2E]). Washam was employed from January 2011 to June 2012 as a stocker and cashier at a store and from June 2012 to February 2013 as a dish washer at a restaurant, (R. 175 [SSA Ex. 2E]), and also was employed as a brick mason and at a nursery, (R. 40).

         Washam filed applications for SSI[3] with the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), on February 25, 2013. (R. 15). In Washam's application, he alleged disability beginning on February 20, 2013.[4] (R. 15). After Washam's claim was denied, he requested a hearing, which was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for the SSA on July 8, 2014. (R. 15). On October 14, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Washam's claims, finding him “not disabled” under sections 223(d) and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (R. 15-25).

         Washam requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council for the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. (R. 8-10). The Appeals Council denied Washam's request for review on March 23, 2016, which made the ALJ's the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-6). On May 19, 2016, Washam filed this action pursuant to § 405(g)[5] and § 1383(c)(3)[6] to review the final decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1, ¶ 4).

         II. 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) (citations and internal quotations omitted). The Court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citations omitted). “Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [the Court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986); MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986); and Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)). “Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [the Court does] not ‘act as automatons.'” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citing Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 411 (5th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 912, 102 S.Ct. 1263, 71 L.Ed.2d 452 (1982)). The Court “must scrutinize the record as a whole, [Ware, 651 F.2d at 411]; Lewis v. Weinberger, 515 F.2d 584, 586-87 (5th Cir. 1975), to determine if the decision reached is reasonable, Simmons v. Harris, 602 F.2d 1233, 1236 (5th Cir. 1979), and supported by substantial evidence, Scharlow v. Schweiker, 655 F.2d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 1981).” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239.

         “In contrast to the deferential review accorded to the [Commissioner's] findings of fact, the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law, including applicable review standards are not presumed valid.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (citing MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053; Smith v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 1284, 1285 (11th Cir. 1983), Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982); Smith v. Schweiker, 646 F.2d 1075, 1076 (5th Cir. Unit A June 1981). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient basis for a determination that proper legal principles have been followed mandates reversal.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 619, 622 (11th Cir. 1986); Bowel v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635-36 (11th Cir. 1984); Smith, 707 F.2d at 1285; Wiggins, 679 F.2d at 1389; Ambers v. Heckler, 736 F.2d 1467, 1470 (11th Cir. 1984)).

The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step, sequential evaluation process used to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, at 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         III. Claims on Judicial Review

         1. “The [ALJ] committed reversible error in violation of Social Security Ruling 96-6p in not finding Plaintiff disabled under Listing 12.05(D).” (Doc. 9, at 1).

         2. “The [ALJ] reversibly erred in failing to ask the Vocational Expert a hypothetical question that encompassed all of the Plaintiff's mental and physical limitations in violation of Pendley v. Heckler, 767 F.2d 1561, 1563 (11th Cir. 1985).” (Doc. 9, at 2).

         IV. Analysis

         “At the first step, the ALJ must consider the claimant's current working situation. If the claimant is ‘doing substantial gainful activity, [the ALJ] will find that [the claimant is] not disabled.'” Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237 (alterations in original) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & (b)). “If however, the claimant is not currently ‘doing gainful activity' then the ALJ moves on to the second step.” Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237. At the first step, the ALJ determined that Washam had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 25, 2013, the application date.” (R. 17). The ALJ noted that Washam “worked after the application date but this work activity did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.” (R. 17).

At the second step, the ALJ is to “consider the medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). When considering the severity of the claimant's medical impairments, the ALJ must determine whether the impairments, alone or in combination, “significantly limit” the claimant's “physical or mental ability to do basic work skills.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the ALJ concludes that none of the claimant's impairments are medically severe, the ALJ is to conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & (c). If, however, the ALJ concludes that the claimant's impairments are medically severe, then the ALJ moves on to the third step.

Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237 (alterations in original). At Step Two, the ALJ determined that Washam had the following severe impairment: “borderline intellectual functioning.” (R. 17).

At the third step, the ALJ again considers the “medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s)” in order to determine whether the claimant's impairment(s) “meets or equals” one of the listed disabilities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Although the list is too voluminous to recite here, the idea is that the listings “streamline[ ] the decision process by identifying those claimants whose medical impairments are so severe that it is likely they would be found disabled regardless of their vocational background.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2297, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). If the ALJ concludes that the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listed disabilities and meet the duration requirement, the ALJ will conclude that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & (d). If, however, the ALJ concludes that the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal the listed impairments, then the ALJ will move on to step four.

Phillips, 257 F.3d at 1238 (alterations in original). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Washam “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. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. (R. 17).

At the fourth step, the ALJ must assess: (1) the claimant's [RFC]; and (2) the claimant's ability to return to her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). As for the claimant's RFC, the regulations define RFC as that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). Moreover, the ALJ will “assess and make a finding about [the claimant's RFC] based on all the relevant medical and other evidence” in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Furthermore, the RFC determination is used both to determine whether the claimant: (1) can return to her past relevant work under the fourth step; and (2) can adjust to other work under the fifth step . . . . 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
If the claimant can return to her past relevant work, the ALJ will conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (f). If the claimant cannot return to her past ...

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