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Robertson v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

September 20, 2017

RETHA ROBERTSON, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          STACI G. CORNELIUS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Retha Robertson, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Ms. Robertson timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 14). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Robertson was fifty-three years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision; she has an eighth grade education. (R. 39-40). Ms. Robertson's past work experience includes employment as a sorter, utility assembler, headlight assembler, off bearing/inspector, cashier, CNA, feeder, film developer, fast food worker, photographer at a portrait studio, and creeler.[1] (R. 28). Ms. Robertson claims she became disabled on June 9, 2012, due to back problems, right leg problems, COPD, congestive heart failure, emphysema, depression, left shoulder problems, and panic attacks. (R. 171). Ms. Robertson applied for DIB benefits on June 20, 2012. (R. 10). After holding a hearing, the ALJ denied Ms. Robertson's claim on August 21, 2014. (R. 29). Ms. Robertson timely appealed to this court.

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to consider the combined effects of all the claimant's physical and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet durational requirements before a claimant will be found disabled. Id. The decision depends on the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, at which the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments meet the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairments fall within this category, the claimant will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If the impairments do not fall within the listings, the Commissioner determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         At step four the Commissioner determines whether the impairments prevent the claimant from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, he or she is not disabled, and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, at which the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, to determine whether he or she can perform other work. Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, he or she is not disabled. Id.

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Ms. Robertson had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability. (R. 13). At step two, the ALJ found Ms. Robertson suffered from the following severe impairments: minimal coronary artery disease, depression, anxiety, bilateral sacroiliitis, lumbar radiculopathy, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"). (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ found Ms. Robertson did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments. (R. 21). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Ms. Robertson had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(c) with the following limitations: (1) a temperature-controlled work environment; (2) no climbing; (3) occasional stooping and crouching; (4) no driving; and (5) no right leg pushing and/or pulling. (R. 24). The ALJ determined Ms. Robertson was capable of simple, repetitive, non-complex tasks. (Id.).

         During the hearing, the ALJ took testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), who testified that Ms. Robertson retained the capacity to perform all past relevant, unskilled work. (R. 28). The ALJ found the VE's testimony to be credible and, at step four, determined Ms. Robertson was capable of performing past relevant work as a sorter, assembler, cashier, and utility assembler. (Id.). The ALJ concluded his decision by finding Ms. Robertson was not disabled. (R. 29).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 F. App'x 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). A court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nonetheless, a court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if a court finds that the proof preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard [for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] Court scrutinize the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815 F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. ...


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