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Hughes v. Berryhill

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

September 15, 2017

DONNIE LYNN HUGHES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pro se plaintiff Donnie Lynn Hughes brings this action pursuant to Title II of Section § 205(g) of the Social Security Act. Mr. Hughes seeks review of a decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After careful review, the Court remands this action to the Commissioner.[1]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of review in this matter is limited. “When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, ” the Court “review[s] the ALJ's ‘factual findings with deference' and [his] ‘legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'” Riggs v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's factual findings. “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In evaluating the administrative record, the Court may not “decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, ” or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citation omitted). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's factual findings, then the Court “must affirm even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings.” Costigan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 603 Fed.Appx. 783, 786 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Crawford, 363 F.3d at 1158).

         With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On December 28, 2012, Mr. Hughes filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 7-6, p. 2). Mr. Hughes alleges that he became disabled on March 25, 2011. (Doc. 7-6, p. 2). The Social Security Administration denied Mr. Hughes's claim on February 20, 2013. (Doc. 7-5, p. 4). Consequently, Mr. Hughes filed a written request for a hearing. (Doc. 7-5, p. 16).

         The Social Security Administration granted Mr. Hughes's request, and on April 28, 2014, Mr. Hughes appeared and testified at a video hearing before an administrative law judge. (See Doc. 7-3, pp. 78-115). Julia Russell, a vocational expert, and Joel S. Roger, an attorney who represented Mr. Hughes, also appeared at the hearing. (See Doc. 7-3, p. 79).[2] At the time of his hearing, Mr. Hughes was 43 years old. (Doc. 7-3, p. 83).

         Mr. Hughes testified that he attended school through the seventh grade and left during his eighth grade year at the age of sixteen. (Doc. 7-3, p. 90). Mr. Hughes stated that after he failed the first grade his school wanted to place him in special education, but his mother refused. (Doc. 7-3, p. 90). Mr. Hughes tried to get his GED, but he did not pass the test. (Doc. 7-3, p. 91). Mr. Hughes testified that he reads on a third-grade level, he cannot spell, and he struggles with writing. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 90-91, 107). Mr. Hughes has work experience as a maintenance worker, water meter reader, and maintenance mechanic. (Doc. 7-3, p. 108). Mr. Hughes indicated that as a water meter reader, he dug with a shovel; he had no other tasks. (Doc. 7-3, pp. 107-08).

         On May 27, 2014, the ALJ denied Mr. Hughes's request for disability benefits. The ALJ found that Mr. Hughes did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526). (Doc. 7-3, pp. 59, 65). The ALJ applied the Social Security Administration's “five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if an individual is disabled, ” noting that the evaluation would not proceed to the next step “[i]f it is determined that the claimant is or is not disabled at a step of the evaluation process[.]” (Doc. 7-3, p. 63).

         The ALJ found that Mr. Hughes had not “engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 25, 2011, the alleged onset date[.]” (Doc. 7-3, p. 64). The ALJ also found that Mr. Hughes has the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; depression; [and] anxiety.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 64). The ALJ determined that “the[se] impairments are ‘severe' within the meaning of the Regulations because they more than minimally limit the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 64). Additionally, the ALJ observed that Mr. Hughes has non-severe impairments including: snoring; sleep apnea; waking up jerking and jumping; dyspnea (defined as difficult or labored breathing), hypersomnia, unspecified; periodic limb movement disorder; and chronic obstructive bronchitis without exacerbation. (Doc. 7-3, p. 65). With respect to these conditions, the ALJ stated:

[On] March 2011, the claimant complained of snoring, nocturnal apnea, waking up jerking and jumping and dyspnea. A pulmonary function test indicated mild obstructive and restrictive lung deficits and mildly reduced diffusing capacity. A chest x-ray was normal. The claimant's physician diagnosed rule out [sic] obstructive sleep apnea, hypersomnia, unspecified; snoring; periodic limb movement disorder; chronic obstructive bronchitis without exacerbation. [Mr. Hughes] was prescribed symbicort inhalations.
The claimant followed up for his respiratory complaints in January 2012. He noted no acute pulmonary complaints. He was still smoking. A physical examination revealed normal breathing. The claimant had diminished breath sounds but no rales, no rhonchi, no wheezing and no edema. The claimant's most recent chest x-ray revealed hyperinflation, increased interstitial marking and multiple head granulomas. The claimant was diagnosed with chronic obstructive bronchitis without exacerbation and tobacco abuse.
There is no further evidence of any pulmonary issues or complaints after January 2012. The claimant mentioned no complaints at the hearing. He admitted, however, that he continues to smoke against the recommendations of his physicians (Hearing Testimomy).
Accordingly, as there is no evidence in the record that indicates that these impairments would cause the claimant any more than minimal functional limitations, the undersigned finds them to be nonsevere.

(Doc. 7-3, p. 65).

         The ALJ next determined that Mr. Hughes's impairments do not meet or medically equal the severity of an impairment listed in the regulations. (Doc. 7-3, p. 65). With respect to Mr. Hughes's physical impairments, the ALJ found that the criteria under listings 1.04A, 1.04B, and 1.04C were not satisfied based on the medical evidence. (Doc. 7-3, p. 65). With respect to Mr. Hughes's mental impairments, the ALJ found that the severity of these impairments do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listing 12.04B or 12.04C. (Doc. 7-3, p. 65). Listing 12.04B requires evidence that the mental impairment “result[s] in at least two of the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation. (See Doc. 7-3, p. 65-66) (referencing listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1). The ALJ noted that “[a] marked limitation means more than moderate but less than extreme.” (Doc. 7-3, p. 66). The ALJ concluded that Mr. Hughes's mental impairments were moderate but not marked. (Doc. 7-3, p. 66).

         Based on the above factual findings, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Hughes had the “residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and § 416.967(b) with some exceptions. (Doc. 7-3, p. 67). The ALJ opined:

[Mr. Hughes] is able to occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds; must avoid all exposure to hazardous machinery and unprotected heights; must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, fumes, dusts, gases and poor ventilation; must work in an environment where tasks are learned through demonstration as opposed to reading; . . . the claimant may have casual contact with coworkers, supervisors and the public; the claimant must work in an environment where changes are infrequent but when necessary are introduced gradually; must be permitted to alternate between sitting and standing every 30 minutes to an hour ...

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