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Mann v. Berryhill

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

July 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Cheri Denise Mann brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”)[1] denying her application for disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 1).[2] The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. (Doc. 12). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         On January 19, 2012, Mann protectively filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability commencing October 23, 2011. (R. 131, 185).[3] Following the initial denial of her application, Mann requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 91-92). The hearing was held on January 27, 2014. (R. 37-55). The ALJ issued a decision on May 28, 20144, finding that Mann was not disabled. (R. 25-32). The Appeals Council denied her Request for Review on December 10, 2015. (R. 1-5). Mann then filed this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The 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.

         The 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. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show 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). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 F. App'x 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014)[4] (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.; Evans, 551 F. App'x at 524.


         Mann was forty-nine years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 131). She has a college education and past work as an accounts receivable manager, analyst, and sales agent. (R. 52, 152, 189, 204). Mann alleges disability beginning on October 23, 2011, due to chronic lymphocytic leukemia (“CCL”), [5] hypogammaglobulinemia, [6] and chronic fatigue syndrome. (R. 188).

         The ALJ found that Mann had the severe impairment of leukemia but that this impairment did not meet or medically equal the criteria for any listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listings”). (R. 27-29). The ALJ determined that the evidence showed that Mann's leukemia was in remission and she was not suffering from symptoms that resulted in debilitating limitations. (R. 32). The ALJ also found that Mann retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: she can occasionally perform postural and manipulative activities, but she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she must avoid concentrated exposure to hot/cold or temperature extremes; she must avoid work around dangerous, moving, unguarded machinery and unprotected heights; she can only work around a limited, small number of coworkers; and she must avoid work around the general public. (R. 29). The ALJ then relied on the testimony from the vocational expert (VE) to find that Mann could perform her past relevant work as an analyst, both as she actually performed the job and as it is generally performed in the national economy. (R. 31-32). The ALJ concluded that Mann was not disabled. (R. 32).

         V. DISCUSSION

         Mann asserts two claims of error: (1) the ALJ failed to properly apply the Listings regarding Leukemia and (2) she failed to properly consider the opinions of her treating physicians. (Doc. 9 at 4-13). The Commissioner disagrees and argues that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings. (Doc. 12 at 4-16).

         A. Consideration of the Listings

         1. Generally

         To meet a Listing at Step Three of the evaluation process, “a claimant must have a diagnosis included in the Listings and must provide medical reports documenting that the conditions meet the specific criteria of the Listings and the duration requirement.” Wilson, 284 F.3d at 1224 (citations omitted); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525. “For a claimant to show that [her] impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990) (emphasis in original).

         2. Analysis

         Mann argues that despite the fact that the ALJ found her leukemia to be a severe impairment, the ALJ “totally ignor[ed] the leukemia listing.” (Doc. 9 at 7-8). In support of her claim, Mann asserts:

Significantly, the leukemia listing indicates that an individual is to be considered “under a disability until at least 24 months from the date of diagnosis or relapse, or at least 12 months from the date of bone marrow or stem cell transplantation, whichever is later.” (20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Listing 13.06). It would thus seem from the listings that [Mann] should have at least been considered for a closed period of benefits for 24 months after her alleged onset date....

(Id. at 7-8). The Commissioner responds that Mann's conclusory assertion is insufficient to meet her burden. (Doc. 12 at 7).

         The analysis must begin with the Listings. The introductory Listing for leukemia provides:

K. How do we evaluate specific cancers?
2. ...

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