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Baker v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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

February 8, 2018




         Plaintiff Michael James Baker seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of an adverse, final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), regarding his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). The court has carefully considered the record, and for the reasons stated below, AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.[1]


         To qualify for disability benefits and establish his entitlement for a period of disability, the claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations[2] define “disabled” as the “inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         In determining whether a claimant suffers a disability, the Commissioner, through an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The burden rests upon the claimant on the first four steps of this five-step process; the Commissioner sustains the burden at step five, if the evaluation proceeds that far. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11thCir. 1999).

         In the first step, the claimant must prove he is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove his impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” Id. at § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the evaluator must conclude the claimant is disabled if he proves that his impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.02. Id. at § 404.1520(d). If a claimant's impairment meets the applicable criteria at this step, that claimant's impairments would prevent any person from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1525. That is, a claimant who satisfies steps one and two qualifies automatically for disability benefits if he suffers from a listed impairment. See Jones, 190 F.3d at 1228 (“If, at the third step, she proves that her impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, she is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).

         If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step where the claimant bears the burden of proving he is incapable of meeting the physical and mental demands of his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At this step, the evaluator must determine whether the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See Id. § 404.1520(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 determine the plaintiff is not disabled. See id.

         If the claimant is successful at the preceding step, the fifth step shifts the burden to the Commissioner to prove, considering claimant's RFC, age, education and past work experience, whether he is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)(1). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will not find him disabled. See Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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).

         In this review, the court reviews the ALJ's “'decision with deference to the factual findings and close scrutiny of the legal conclusions.'” Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Commissioner, Social Sec. Admin., 783 F.3d 847, 850 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). The court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards. Winschel v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). Although the court must “scrutinize the record as a whole . . . to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence, ” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted), the court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion” Id. (citations omitted).


         Mr. Baker applied for DIB on June 20, 2012 (Doc. 9-6 at 5). The Commissioner denied his claim, and Mr. Baker timely filed a request for a hearing on August 3, 2012. (Doc. 9-5 at 2, 12). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on Mr. Baker's claim on September 11, 2013. (Doc. 9-3 at 33). Mr. Baker was 62 years old at the time of his hearing. (See doc. 9-5 at 45; Doc. 9-6 at 5). The ALJ issued an opinion denying Mr. Baker's claim on October 17, 2013. (Doc. 9-3 at 17).

         In his opinion, the ALJ first determined that Mr. Baker met the Social Security Act's insured status requirements through December 31, 2015. (Doc. 9-3 at 22).[3] Applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found at step one that Mr. Baker had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged onset date of February 8, 2012, through the date of the ALJ's opinion, October 17, 2013. (Id.). At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Baker exhibited during the relevant time period the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the left knee, status post 2012 arthroscopic left knee surgery, and hypertension. (Id.). At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Baker's impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or equal any impairment for presumptive disability listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id. at 23).

         Next, the ALJ found that Mr. Baker exhibited the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c) with the following limitations: Mr. Baker can lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; he can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can frequently climb ramps or stairs, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and he cannot perform in concentrated exposure to work hazards. (Doc. 9-3 at 24).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Baker can perform his past relevant work as a service observer. (Id. at 27). The ALJ's determination at step four directs a finding that Mr. Baker is not disabled, but the ALJ also continued in the alternative to step five of the sequential process. At step five, the ALJ determined that, considering Mr. Baker's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there exist a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that Mr. Baker could perform. (Id.). Based on his findings at step four and, in the alternative, at step five, the ALJ concluded Mr. Baker was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act at any time from February 8, 2012, through October 17, 2013, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 28).

         On May 28, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review, which deems the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. 9-3 at 2). Mr. Baker filed his complaint with the ...

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