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Spears v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017

DAVID SPEARS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, David Spears, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for a period of disability, Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Spears 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).

         Mr. Spears was fifty-one years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision, and he has an eighth grade education. (Tr. at 261-62.) His past work experiences include employment as a truck driver and roofer. (Tr. at 217.) Mr. Spears claims that he became disabled on August 20, 2013, due to bilateral shoulder degenerative joint disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, depression, chronic bronchitis, and osteoarthritis in the knees. (Tr. at 78.)

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.

         The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).

         Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing his past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.

         The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Mr. Spears met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 1, 2014. (Tr. at 37.) He further determined that Mr. Spears has not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of his disability. (Id.) According to the ALJ, the plaintiff's bilateral shoulder degenerative joint disease, left knee osteoarthritis, hypertension, cervical degenerative disk disease, and COPD are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (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. (Tr. at 41.) The ALJ did not find Mr. Spears's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that Mr. Spears has the following RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except with no more than occasional pushing and pulling with the upper and lower extremities; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no more than infrequent balancing; no more than occasional kneeling, crouching, and crawling; no more than occasional overhead reaching bilaterally; no more than occasional work in environments involving exposure to extreme cold; no work with hazardous machinery or unprotected heights; and no more than occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants.

(Id.)

         According to the ALJ, Mr. Spears is unable to perform any of his past relevant work, is “closely approaching advanced age, ” and has a “limited education, ” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 44.) The ALJ determined that transferability of job skills was not an issue because Mr. Spears does not have past relevant work. (Tr. at 45.) Because Mr. Spears cannot perform the full range of light work, the ALJ enlisted a Vocational Expert (“VE”) and used Medical-Vocational Rule 202.10 as a guideline for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Mr. Spears is capable of performing, such as sorter, electrical accessories assembler, and small parts assembler. (Id.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that the plaintiff was not disabled from August 20, 2013, through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 46.)

         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 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)). This 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, this 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 this 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. Discussion

         Mr. Spears alleges that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded for four reasons.[1] First, he contends that the ALJ's RFC finding is conclusory and violates Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8a. Second, he argues that the ALJ erred in finding his subjective complaints of pain not credible and asserts that SSR 16-3p, which became effective on March 28, 2016, should have been applied. Third, he contends that the ALJ erred in failing to apply Grid Rule 201.11 to direct a finding of disabled at step five. Fourth, he argues that the Appeals Council refused to review new evidence he submitted solely because it was dated after the ALJ's decision without considering whether the new ...


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