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Garner v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017

PATRICIA DIANE GARNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Patricia Diane Garner, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).[1] Plaintiff 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).

         Plaintiff was fifty-six years old at the time of the ALJ's decision, and she has a general education diploma (“GED”). (Tr. at 30, 240, 283.) Her past work includes employment as a forklift operator, punch press operator, and inspector packager. (Tr. at 58.) Plaintiff claims she became disabled on September 11, 2009, due to breast cancer. (Tr. at 282.) She later added depression, panic disorder, anxiety, dizziness, and severe pain as disabling conditions. (Tr. at 331, 350.)

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB. 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 her 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 her from performing her 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 her 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 her 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 first found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015. (Tr. at 23.) The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability. (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease, anxiety, and depression “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 23-24.) However, she found that these impairments neither met nor medically equaled any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 24.) The ALJ did not find Plaintiff's allegations to be totally credible, and determined that Plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] floor to knuckle lift fifteen pounds maximum and five pounds occasionally. She can knuckle to shoulder lift twenty pounds maximum and five pounds occasionally. She can carry fifteen pounds occasionally and push/pull fifteen pounds occasionally. [She] can constantly sit, stand[, ] and walk with a sit/stand option every hour or so to change positions. She can frequently bend and squat and occasionally kneel and climb stairs. She cannot work around unprotected heights or dangerous machinery. She cannot climb ladders, ropes[, ] or scaffolds. She can handle casual non-intensive interaction with co-workers and the general public. She can concentrate for two hours at a time to complete an eight-hour workday.

(Tr. at 25-27.)

         By enlisting the help of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as an inspector packager because it does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by her RFC. (Tr. at 29.) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from September 11, 2009, 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 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 ...


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