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Owens v. Berryhill

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

February 9, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Dovie Renee Owens brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1).[1] The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. (See Doc. 8). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         Plaintiff filed her current SSI application in April 2013, alleging she became disabled beginning January 31, 2011. It was initially denied. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on January 9, 2015 (R. 37) and issued an unfavorable decision on April 10, 2015 (R. 7-14). The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-6).

         II. FACTS

         Plaintiff was 46 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 25). Plaintiff alleged onset of disability due to physical impairments of diabetes mellitus with peripheral neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), and obesity, and mental impairments of depression and panic disorder. (Id.)

         Following a hearing, applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the just-mentioned severe impairments. (R. 20). He noted that Plaintiff also alleged fibromyalgia and hyperlipidemia impairments, but determined that those conditions were not severe. (Id.) The ALJ also found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. (R. 21). He further found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work, with various postural limitations and no exposure to hazards. (R. 15). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff was limited to work that requires no more than understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions; she can sustain such activity for two hours with normal breaks over an eight-hour workday; she is capable of occasional decision making and interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors, but can have no more than infrequent changes in the work setting; instructions or tasks of the job cannot be conveyed in a written format and can only be conveyed or demonstrated orally. (R. 25). Lastly, the ALJ found Plaintiff is likely to miss two or fewer days per month from work. (Id.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC. (R. 31-32, 74-75). He then concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 33).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Mitchell v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 771 F.3d 780, 782 (11th Cir. 2015; Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). 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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ's determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991). The court must affirm the ALJ's decision if substantial evidence supports it, even if other evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. See Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir.1990)).


         To qualify for benefits a claimant must show the inability to engage in “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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). Specifically, the Commissioner must determine in sequence:

whether the claimant: (1) is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment; (3) has such an impairment that meets or equals a Listing and meets the duration requirements; (4) can perform his past relevant work, in light of his residual functional capacity; and (5) can make an adjustment to other work, in light of his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.

Evans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 551 F. App'x 521, 524 (11th Cir. 2014)[2] (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005). The applicable regulations “place a very heavy burden on the claimant to demonstrate both a qualifying disability and an inability to perform past relevant work.” Id.

         V. ...

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