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Kidd v. Berryhill

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

August 28, 2017

HEATHER JOY KIDD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WALLACE CAPEL, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Heather Joy Kidd (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq., on June 13, 2013. Her application was denied at the initial administrative level on October 3, 2013. Plaintiff then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). At that hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work, and that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Appeals Council, but was denied review on July 2, 2016. The ALJ's decision consequently became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).[2] See Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). The case is now before the court for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Pl.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 8); Def.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Docs. 7, 9). Based on the court's review of the record and the briefs of the parties, the court REVERSES and REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A), a person is entitled to benefits when the person is unable 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).[3]

         To make this determination, the Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2011).

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 [the Listing of Impairments]?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy? An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of “not disabled.”

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).[4]

         The burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step Four. See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). A claimant establishes a prima facie case of qualifying disability once they have carried the burden of proof from Step One through Step Four. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id.

         To perform the fourth and fifth steps, the ALJ must determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). Id. at 1238-39. The RFC is what the claimant is still able to do despite the claimant's impairments and is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. Id. It may contain both exertional and nonexertional limitations. Id. at 1242-43. At the fifth step, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if there are jobs available in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id. at 1239. To do this, the ALJ can either use the Medical Vocational Guidelines (“grids”) or call a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at 1239-40.

         The grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or light work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience. Each factor can independently limit the number of jobs realistically available to an individual. Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a statutorily-required finding of “Disabled” or “Not Disabled.” Id.

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one. This court must find the Commissioner's decision conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (“Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [a reviewing court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.”). A reviewing court may not look only to those parts of the record which support the decision of the ALJ, but instead must view the record in its entirety and take account of evidence which detracts from the evidence relied on by the ALJ. Hillsman v. Bowen, 804 F.2d 1179 (11th Cir. 1986).

[The court must] . . . scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the [Commissioner's] . . . factual findings. . . . No similar presumption of validity attaches to the [Commissioner's] . . . legal conclusions, including determination of the proper standards to be applied in evaluating claims.

Walker v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 996, 999 (11th Cir. 1987).

         III. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff was thirty-five years old at the time of the hearing, and had completed tenth grade. Tr. 46. Following an administrative hearing, and employing the five-step process, the ALJ found at Step One that Plaintiff “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 10, 2012, the alleged onset date[.]” Tr. 24. At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from the following severe impairments: “herpes simplex type II meningitis and migraines[.]” Tr. 24. At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments[.]” Tr. 27. Next, the ALJ articulated Plaintiff's RFC as follows: “[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a).” Tr. 27. Having consulted with a VE at the h earing, the A LJ concluded at Step Four that Plaintiff “is unable to perform any past relevant work[.]” Tr. 30. The ALJ, noting that Plaintiff was considered a “younger individual” on the alleged disability date with “limited” education, concluded that the “[t]ransferability of job skills [was] not material to the determination of disability because applying the Medical-Vocational Rules directly supports a finding of ‘not disabled, ' whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills[.]” Tr. 30. Finally, at Step Five, and based upon the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined that “[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform[.]” Tr. 30. The ALJ did not list other jobs that Plaintiff could perform, but instead concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled based upon Medical-Vocational Rule 201.25. Tr. 30-31. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability . . . from February 10, 2012, through the date of this decision[.]” Tr. 31.

         IV. PLAINTIFF'S CLAIMS

         Plaintiff presents two arguments on appeal. First, Plaintiff argues “[t]he ALJ failed to provide adequate weight to the opinions of [Plaintiff's] treating physician[.]” Doc. 13 at 5-8. Second, Plaintiff argues “the ALJ failed to find [Plaintiff's] depression and anxiety as severe impairments[.]” Id. at 8-11.

         V. DISCUSSION

         The undersigned turns first to address whether the ALJ provided adequate weight to the opinions of ...


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