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Wilder v. Berryhill

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

July 27, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Cynthia Tidmore Wilder 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.[2] 1). 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). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         In December 2012, Wilder filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning December 23, 2011. (R.[3]19, 164). Her application was denied initially. (R. 19). Wilder then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (R. 19). The hearing was held on June 9, 2014. (R. 19). Wilder, her counsel, and a vocational expert attended the hearing. (R. 19). At the hearing, Wilder, acting through her counsel, amended her disability onset date to May 16, 2012. (R. 19, 37). The ALJ issued a decision on September 12, 2014, finding that Wilder was not entitled to benefits. (R. 19-29). The Appeals Council denied Wilder's request for review on January 29, 2016. (R. 1-4). Wilder 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 decision of the Commissioner 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. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         To qualify for disability insurance 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); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). 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). To be eligible for disability insurance benefits, a claimant must demonstrate disability on or before the last date she was insured. See Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A)).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). 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 [her] past relevant work, in light of [her] residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of [her] residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 F. App'x 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)).[4] The claimant bears the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Moore, 405 F.3d at 1211. The applicable “regulations place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Id.


         Wilder was 52 years old at the time of her hearing before the ALJ. (R. 37). She has a high school education, but does not possess a diploma, and has past work experience in the fast food industry and performing general labor in a warehouse. (R. 25, 39, 198). She alleged in her disability report that she had been unable to work since October 20, 2010, due to degenerative disc disease and curvature of the spine. (R. 197). She was insured for Social Security disability insurance benefits through December 31, 2014. (R. 21).

         At her administrative hearing, Wilder testified that she was unable to work during the relevant period due to spinal scoliosis and degenerative disc disease. She further testified that she experiences shooting pain in her leg, back and arm. (R. 41).

         The ALJ found that Wilder had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, mild scoliosis, and degenerative joint disease. (R. 21). The ALJ further found that Wilder's impairments did not meet or medically equally any listed impairments. (R. 24). The ALJ found that Wilder had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light, unskilled work with the following restrictions: no climbing; no work at unprotected heights; no more than occasional stooping crouching, or crawling; no more than frequent handling bilaterally; and no more than frequent interaction with co-workers, supervisors, or the general public.[5] (R. 25).

         Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Wilder could not perform her past relevant work. (R. 27-28). He further found, however, that Wilder was capable of performing a number of other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including marker, inspector/hand packager, and office helper. (R. 28-29). The ALJ concluded that Wilder was not under a disability at any time from her alleged onset date of May 16, 2012, through the date of the decision. (R. 29).

         V. ...

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