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Norris v. Berryhill

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

January 22, 2018

JAMES NORRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

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

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At the time he applied for benefits, January 9, 2014, Mr. Norris was 47 years old. (R. 19, 71-72). He completed the tenth grade and had training as an automobile mechanic. (R. 32, 33). Mr. Norris has past work as a delivery driver, repossessor, construction laborer, cabinet assembler, cabinet finisher, stockyard attendant, and farm laborer. (R. 46-47). Mr. Norris claims he became disabled as of November 1, 2012, due to bulging discs and chronic back pain. (R. 40, 187). After the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied his applications (R. 73, 78), he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (R. 27, 86). After the June 3, 2015 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. 15, 27). The ALJ further found the plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a reduced range of light work (R. 15-16) and, while he had no transferrable job skills, jobs exist in the national economy in significant numbers which the plaintiff could perform (R. 19). In light of these findings, the ALJ denied Mr. Norris's request for a period of disability on August 7, 2015. (R. 20).

         Mr. Norris requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision (R. 8), which the Appeals Council denied (R. 1).[2] Therefore, the ALJ's decision is the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (Id.) Mr. Norris then filed a complaint in this court on January 17, 2017, seeking reversal of the Commissioner's decision. (Docs. 1, 15).

         The regulations require the Commissioner to follow a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for a period of disability, SSI, and DIB. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1)-(2); 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 his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b); 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); 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. §§ 404.1512(c); 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d)-(e); 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d)-(e); §§ 404.1525; 416.925; §§ 404.1526; 416.926. Listed impairments are so severe that they prevent an individual from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d); 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. §§ 404.1520(d); 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f); 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. §§ 404.1560(b); 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. §§ 404.1560(b)(3); 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. §§ 404.1560(c)(1); 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. §§ 404.1520(g); 416.920(g).

         Applying these steps, the ALJ determined that Mr. Norris had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since his alleged onset date. (R. 14). At step two, the ALJ found Mr. Norris suffered from the severe impairments of spine disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and obesity. (Id.). The ALJ found Mr. Norris's anxiety to be non-severe because it did not cause more than minimal limitation in his ability to perform work related activities. (Id.). Next, the ALJ found Mr. Norris did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any Listing. (R. 15). The ALJ determined Mr. Norris had the RFC to perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), reduced by limitations of: lifting 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; no concentrated exposure to extreme heat, cold, vibration, or pulmonary irritants; no work around hazardous machinery or unprotected heights; and no continuous overhead reaching. (R. 15-16). At step four, considering this RFC, the ALJ determined Mr. Norris could not perform any past relevant work, but found at step five, through the use of Vocation Expert testimony, that he could perform jobs which exist in the national economy in significant numbers, such as parts assembler, packer/inspector, and cashier. (R. 18, 19).

         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

         Mr. Norris contends the ALJ failed to consider his subjective pain testimony, the side effects of medication, and the length of time of treatment, requiring reversal of the ALJ's decision. (Doc. 15 at 8-12). The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence, particularly the lack of any objective medical findings. (Doc. 17 at 7-14).

         In cases where a plaintiff claims disability solely based on pain, the Eleventh Circuit has instructed ...


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