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Kelley v. Berryhill

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

February 15, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         I. Introduction[2]

         Plaintiff Joshua Scott Kelley (“Kelley”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Kelley seeks a review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), who denied his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Kelley filed his application on October 24, 2011. The ALJ issued his first decision on August 13, 2013. (Tr. 13). However, upon review, the Appeals Council vacated the first decision and remanded the case. (Id.). The second decision, which is the one before this Court, was issued on November 9, 2015. (Tr. 37). This decision was also unfavorable to Kelley. After that, Kelley pursued and exhausted the administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. Kelley filed his Complaint in the Northern District of Alabama on November 6, 2016. (Doc. 1). Kelley filed his brief in support of his position on July 25, 2017. (Doc. 12). The Commissioner responded on September 25, 2017. (Doc. 15). This case is now ripe for judicial review under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The Court carefully reviewed the record in this case and AFFIRMS the ALJ's decision.

         II. Relevant Background

         The alleged onset date is October 6, 2011. (Tr. 13). Kelley suffers from “cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, history of cervical stenosis, seizure disorder, and unspecified drug dependence.” (Id. at 16) (emphasis omitted). He filed his application on October 24, 2011. On August 27, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Ronald Reeves held a hearing. (Id. at 43-73). The ALJ issued his decision on November 9, 2015, which was unfavorable to Kelley. (Id. at 13-37). In that opinion, the ALJ found that Kelley could perform “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.” (Id. at 36) (emphasis omitted). Kelley requested that the Appeals Council review his claim. (Id. at 3-5). They refused. (Id.).

         III. Standards

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This 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). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court.

         The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed 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, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         IV. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[3] The Regulations 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 about a “physical or mental impairment” that “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.

         The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The sequential analysis goes as follows:

Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.

Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         V. Finding of the Administrative Law Judge

         After considering the record, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2016 (Exhibit 7D).
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 6, 2011, the alleged onset date of disability (20 ...

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