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Alexander v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

September 27, 2017

CAMERON ALEXANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The Plaintiff, Cameron Alexander, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (Doc. 1). Mr. Alexander 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). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Alexander was thirty-eight years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision. (R. 86). He has a high school education and speaks English. (Id.). Mr. Alexander's past experience includes employment as a warehouse worker, a stocker in the retail industry, and a boilermaker apprentice. (R. 86). These jobs are classified at the heavy exertional level. (Id.). Mr. Alexander claims he became disabled on April 29, 2009, due to back injuries and high blood pressure. (R. 252). Plaintiff applied for DIB on September 6, 2012. (R. 74). After holding a hearing, the ALJ denied Mr. Alexander's claims on July 11, 2014. (R. 88). Plaintiff 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 whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, 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 Mr. Alexander had not engaged in SGA during the relevant time period. (R. 77). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: anxiety, hypertension, torn cartilage in his right knee (for which he underwent arthroscopic repair in 1986), multiple bulging discs in his lumbar region, thoracic compression fractures dating to 2009, mild foraminal stenosis, and obstructive sleep apnea. (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 77). The ALJ noted that no medical expert concluded Mr. Alexander's impairments met the listed impairments and the record evidence would not have supported such a conclusion. (R. 77-79). In making his findings, the ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's allegations of pain. (Id.).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Mr. Alexander had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b), with the following limitations: (1) no climbing or working at unprotected heights; (2) no overhead reaching or lifting using his left arm; (3) no driving; (4) no upper or lower extremity pushing and/or pulling; (5) no working with or around the general public; and (6) occasional stooping and crouching. (R. 79). At step four, the ALJ determined Mr. Alexander was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (R. 85- 86). Because Plaintiff's RFC did not allow for the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") for finding a significant number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 86-87). The ALJ concluded by finding Mr. Alexander was not disabled. (R. 87).

         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 Fed.Appx. 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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