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Somerset v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2018

STERLING SOMERSET, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The plaintiff, Sterling Somerset, seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for a period of disability and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). Mr. Somerset timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the case is therefore ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At the time he applied for benefits, June 13, 2013, Mr. Somerset was 59 years old. (R. 28, 65, 66). He is a high school graduate with one year of college. (R. 159). Mr. Somerset previously worked as a bricklayer and a carpenter. (Id.). Mr. Somerset alleged he stopped working in November 2012 due to high blood pressure, severe arthritis, COPD, and hypoglycemia. (R. 158). After the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his application, Mr. Somerset requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on December 29, 2014. (R. 33, 76, 82). After the hearing, the ALJ found the plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments listed in, or medically equivalent to, one listed in the Listings of Impairments. (R. 22). The ALJ further found the plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of medium work and, while he could perform no past relevant work, jobs exist in the national economy in significant numbers which the plaintiff could perform. (R. 22, 28). In light of these findings, the ALJ denied the plaintiff's request for a period of disability on April 16, 2015. (R. 29).

         The plaintiff sought Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied. (R. 1, 14). Therefore, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The plaintiff then filed the appeal in this court on September 26, 2016, seeking reversal of the Commissioner's decision. (Docs. 1, 12).

         The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for a period of disability and SSI. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(1)-(2). First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition or age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c). The burden is on the claimant to “provide medical evidence showing ... impairment(s)” and the severity of them during the time the claimant alleges disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(c). An impairment is “severe” if it “significantly limits [a] claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” Crayton v. Callahan, 120 F.3d 1217, 1219 (11th Cir. 1997). “An impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner must then determine whether the claimant's impairment meets the duration requirement and whether it is equivalent to any one of the listed impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d)-(e); § 416.925; § 416.926. Listed impairments are so severe that they prevent an individual from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d); see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (The Listings). If the claimant's impairment meets or equals a Listing, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If the impairment does not meet or equal the criteria of any Listing, the claimant must prove that his impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (f).

         At step four, the Commissioner “will first compare [the Commission's] assessment of [the claimant's] residual functional capacity [“RFC”] with the physical and mental demands of [the claimant's] past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b). If the claimant is capable of performing his past relevant work, the Commissioner will find he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b)(3). If the claimant establishes he is unable to perform his past relevant work, the Commissioner must show that the claimant-in light of his RFC, age, education, and work experience-is capable of performing other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(1). If the claimant is not capable of performing such other work, the Commissioner must find the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         Applying these steps, the ALJ determined the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since his alleged onset date. (R. 21). At step two, the ALJ found the plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of scoliosis, degenerative disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the right knee, skin carcinoma, and hypertension. (Id.). The ALJ found the plaintiff's seborrheic keratosis, alcohol dependence, and anxiety to be non-severe impairments because they did not cause more than minimal limitation in the plaintiff's ability to perform work related activities. (Id.). Next, the ALJ found the plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any Listing. (R. 22). The ALJ determined the plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), with the following limitations: frequent use of right foot controls; frequent climbing of ramps and stairs; no climbing ladders or scaffolding; occasionally crouching, kneeling, and crawling; and only routine and repetitive tasks and simple work-related decisions. (R. 22-23). Considering this RFC, at step four the ALJ determined the plaintiff could not perform past relevant work but found at step five, through the use of Vocation Expert (“VE”) testimony, that the plaintiff could perform jobs which exist in the national economy in significant numbers, such as sandblaster, factory helper, and washer. (R. 28-29).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act, this court is limited to an inquiry into whether substantial evidence exists to support the findings of the Commissioner and whether the correct legal standards were applied. 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)). The court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner but reviews questions of law de novo. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007). The court “may not decide the 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), rather it must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Henry v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 802 F.3d 1264, 1267 (11th Cir. 2015). “The Commissioner's factual findings are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence.” Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). “Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The plaintiff contends the ALJ's determination of the plaintiff's RFC is not consistent with the requirements of medium work or the medical evidence. (Doc. 12 at 7-8). The plaintiff continues that, because he should have been found to be limited to light work, and based on his age, he then would have been found disabled under the Medical Vocations Rules (the “Grids”), specifically Rule 202.06. (Id., at 9). Moreover, the plaintiff asserts the ALJ should have obtained a medical source opinion (“MSO”) for assistance in determining the plaintiff's RFC. (Id., at 10). The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's RFC determination, the ALJ properly relied on the VE's testimony rather than the Grids, and the ALJ was not obligated to obtain additional evidence from a medical expert. (Doc. 14 at 5, 14, 17, 21).

         A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's ...


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