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Griffin v. Berryhill

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

September 27, 2017

BLAKE R. GRIFFIN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         The plaintiff, Blake R. Griffin, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Griffin timely pursued and exhausted his 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 the exercise of dispositive jurisdiction by a magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 8). Accordingly, the court issues the following memorandum opinion.

         I. Introduction

         Mr. Griffin was 47 years old on the date of the ALJ's opinion. (Tr. at 31, 158). He obtained his GED after attending high school through the 10th grade. (Tr. 58). After obtaining his GED, he completed one semester of training at a technical college to become a machinist and one semester of training in production at another technical college. Id. His past work experience includes employment in labor jobs, such as tire store sales/service, vending route sales, truck driver, back hoe operator, and building maintenance. (Tr. at 59-66). Mr. Griffin claims that he became disabled on May 8, 2013, due to depression and anxiety, attention deficit disorder (“ADD”), total left knee replacement, arthritis, and “right knee no cartilage [sic].” (Tr. at 90).

         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; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination of whether the claimant is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet the durational requirements before a claimant will be found to be 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, which is a determination of whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal 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 claimant's impairments fall within this category, he will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If they do not, a determination of the claimant's residual functional capacity will be made and the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is an assessment, based on all relevant evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step. Id. Step five requires the court to consider the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, in order to determine if he can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The burden is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist which the claimant can perform; and, once that burden is met, the claimant must prove his inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Griffin meets the nondisability requirements for a period of disability and DIB and was insured through December 31, 2018. (Tr. at 20). He further determined that Mr. Griffin has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of his disability. Id. According to the ALJ, the plaintiff has the following impairments that are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations: degenerative joint disease of the knees, arthritis of the back, obesity, depression, and anxiety. Id. However, he found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. The ALJ did not find Mr. Griffin's allegations to be entirely credible (tr. at 23), and he determined that he has the following residual functional capacity:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) with occasional pushing and pulling with the lower extremities; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional balancing, kneeling, crouching, and stooping, but no crawling; no more than occasional exposure to extreme heat and cold and vibration; he should avoid all hazardous machinery and unprotected heights; and no working requiring walking on uneven terrain. During a regularly scheduled workday, or the equivalent thereof, he can; (1) understand and remember short and simple instructions, but is unable to do so with detailed or complex instructions, (2) do simple, routine repetitive tasks, but is unable to do so with detailed or complex tasks, (3) deal with changes in work place, if introduced occasionally and gradually and are well-explained, and (4) he may be expected to miss one day of work per month due to his impairments.

(Tr. at 22).

         According to the ALJ, Mr. Griffin is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, he is a “younger individual, ” and he has “at least a high school education, ” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 29). He determined that “[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is ‘not disabled, ' whether or not he has transferable job skills.” (Tr. at 30). The ALJ found that Mr. Griffin has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.” (Tr. at 30). Even though additional limitations impede Plaintiff's “residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work, ” the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “would be able to perform the requirements of representative sedentary, unskilled occupations with an SVP of 2, such as . . . telephone quotation clerk, . . . charge account clerk, . . . .and as a dowel inspector.” Id. The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 8, 2013, through the date of this decision.” Id.

         II. Standard of Review

         This 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 Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id. “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. Federal Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision, the court must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No decision is automatic, however, for “despite this deferential standard [for review of claims] it is imperative that the 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). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         The court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a claimant's residual functional capacity, and the application of vocational factors “are not medical opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved to the commissioner because they are administrative findings that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e), 416.927(d). Whether the plaintiff meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long as there is substantial evidence in the record supporting it.

         III. Discussion

         Mr. Griffin alleges that the ALJ and the Appeals Council erred in finding that he was not disabled because substantial evidence of his disability was presented.[3] Specifically, Mr. Griffin argues that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for two reasons. First, he believes that the ALJ failed to give substantial or considerable weight to the Residual Functional Capacity Assessment (“Assessment”) prepared by Dr. Elizabeth Stevenson[4] when the ALJ found that the plaintiff was capable of performing sedentary work. (Doc. 13 at pp. 7-9). Second, the plaintiff contends that, when considered in light of the new evidence submitted to the Appeals Council, the ALJ erred in finding that the plaintiff's degenerative joint disease of the knee did not meet or medically equal the severity of the impairment in Listing 1.02A. (Doc. 13 at pp. 9-12).

         A. Dr. Stevenson's Residual Functional ...

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