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Simmons v. Berryhill

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

November 9, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.



         Social Security Claimant/Plaintiff Valerie Joyce Simmons brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for a period of disability (“PoD”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), for all proceedings in this Court. (Doc. 14 (“In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73, the parties in this case consent to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct any and all proceedings in this case, including the trial, order the entry of a final judgment, and conduct all post-judgment proceedings.”)).

         Upon consideration of the briefs of the parties, (Docs. 16 & 19), the administrative record, (Docs. 11-13), (hereinafter cited as “(R. [page number(s) in lower-right corner of transcript])”), and the arguments presented during the hearing held on March 27, 2017, it is determined that the Commissioner's decision is due to be AFFIRMED.[2]

         I. Background

         Simmons was born on September 16, 1966, (R. 226 [SSA Ex. 1E]). The highest grade of school Simmons completed was the eleventh grade. (R. 231 [SSA Ex. 2E]). Simmons was employed as an insurance billing clerk, a home health aid, and a claims processor. (R. 231 [SSA Ex. 3E]). Simmons filed applications for PoD and DIB with the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”), [3] on March 25, 2013. (R. 57). Simmons, also, filed an application for SSI on March 25, 2013.[4] (R. 57). In Simmons's applications, she alleged disability beginning on August 15, 2012.[5] (R. 57). After Simmons's claim was denied, she requested a hearing, which was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for the SSA on June 16, 2014. (R. 57). On November 26, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on Simmons's claims, finding her “not disabled” under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (R. 54-75).

         Simmons requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council for the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. (R. 24-27). The Appeals Council denied Simmons's request for review on April 18, 2016, which made the ALJ's the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-7). On September 30, 2016, Simmons filed this action pursuant to § 405(g)[6] and § 1383(c)(3)[7] to review the final decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1, at 1-2).

         II. Standard of Review

         “In Social Security appeals, [the Court] must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011) (citations and internal quotations omitted). The Court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citations omitted). “Even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings, [the Court] must affirm if the decision reached is supported by substantial evidence.” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986); MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986); and Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)). “Yet, within this narrowly circumscribed role, [the Court does] not ‘act as automatons.'” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citing Ware v. Schweiker, 651 F.2d 408, 411 (5th Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 912, 102 S.Ct. 1263, 71 L.Ed.2d 452 (1982)). The Court “must scrutinize the record as a whole, [Ware, 651 F.2d at 411]; Lewis v. Weinberger, 515 F.2d 584, 586-87 (5th Cir. 1975), to determine if the decision reached is reasonable, Simmons v. Harris, 602 F.2d 1233, 1236 (5th Cir. 1979), and supported by substantial evidence, Scharlow v. Schweiker, 655 F.2d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 1981).” Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239.

         “In contrast to the deferential review accorded to the [Commissioner's] findings of fact, the [Commissioner's] conclusions of law, including applicable review standards are not presumed valid.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (citing MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053; Smith v. Heckler, 707 F.2d 1284, 1285 (11th Cir. 1983), Wiggins v. Schweiker, 679 F.2d 1387, 1389 (11th Cir. 1982); Smith v. Schweiker, 646 F.2d 1075, 1076 (5th Cir. Unit A June 1981). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct legal standard or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient basis for a determination that proper legal principles have been followed mandates reversal.” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 779 F.2d 619, 622 (11th Cir. 1986); Bowel v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635-36 (11th Cir. 1984); Smith, 707 F.2d at 1285; Wiggins, 679 F.2d at 1389; Ambers v. Heckler, 736 F.2d 1467, 1470 (11th Cir. 1984)).

The Social Security Regulations outline a five-step, sequential evaluation process used to determine whether a claimant is disabled: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals the severity of the specified impairments in the Listing of Impairments; (4) based on a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment, whether the claimant can perform any of his or her past relevant work despite the impairment; and (5) whether there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience.

Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v); Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, at 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         III. Claims on Judicial Review

         1. “The ALJ Erred in Rejecting the Opinion of Dr. Ney, a Treating Psychiatrist.” (Doc. 16, at 2).

         2. “The ALJ Improperly Evaluated Ms. Simmons'[s] Complaints of Pain.” (Doc. 16, at 2).

         IV. Analysis

         “At the first step, the ALJ must consider the claimant's current working situation. If the claimant is ‘doing substantial gainful activity, [the ALJ] will find that [the claimant is] not disabled.'” Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237 (alterations in original) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & (b)). “If however, the claimant is not currently ‘doing gainful activity' then the ALJ moves on to the second step.” Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237. At the first step, the ALJ determined Simmons had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2012, the alleged onset date.” (R. 59).

At the second step, the ALJ is to “consider the medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). When considering the severity of the claimant's medical impairments, the ALJ must determine whether the impairments, alone or in combination, “significantly limit” the claimant's “physical or mental ability to do basic work skills.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the ALJ concludes that none of the claimant's impairments are medically severe, the ALJ is to conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & (c). If, however, the ALJ concludes that the claimant's impairments are medically severe, then the ALJ moves on to the third step.

Phillips, 357 F.3d at 1237 (alterations in original). At Step Two, the ALJ determined Simmons had the following severe impairments:

[M]ild to moderate degenerative osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, a history of sarcoidosis now in remission, fibromyalgia, and a mood disorder with mixed emotional features.

(R. 59).

At the third step, the ALJ again considers the “medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s)” in order to determine whether the claimant's impairment(s) “meets or equals” one of the listed disabilities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Although the list is too voluminous to recite here, the idea is that the listings “streamline[ ] the decision process by identifying those claimants whose medical impairments are so severe that it is likely they would be found disabled regardless of their vocational background.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2297, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). If the ALJ concludes that the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listed disabilities and meet the duration requirement, the ALJ will conclude that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & (d). If, however, the ALJ concludes that the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal the listed impairments, then the ALJ will move on to step four.

Phillips, 257 F.3d at 1238 (alterations in original). At Step Three, the ALJ found that Simmons “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments” in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. (R. 60).

At the fourth step, the ALJ must assess: (1) the claimant's [RFC]; and (2) the claimant's ability to return to her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). As for the claimant's RFC, the regulations define RFC as that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). Moreover, the ALJ will “assess and make a finding about [the claimant's RFC] based on all the relevant medical and other evidence” in the case. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Furthermore, the RFC determination is used both to determine whether the claimant: (1) can return to her past relevant work under the fourth step; and (2) can adjust to other work under the fifth step . . . . 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
If the claimant can return to her past relevant work, the ALJ will conclude that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (f). If the claimant cannot return to her past ...

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