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Hightower v. Berryhill

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

February 20, 2018

ANITRA HIGHTOWER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler United States Disstrict Judge

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Anitra Hightower, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Hightower timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).

         Ms. Hightower was thirty-eight years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision, and she attended school through the twelfth grade, although she did not graduate. (Tr. at 42, 205.) Her past work experiences include employment as a hair stylist, fast food employee, and store manager. (Tr. at 21, 34-36, 191.) Ms. Hightower claims that she became disabled on September 27, 2012, due to migraines, anxiety, shortness of breath, and degenerative joint disease in both knees. (Tr. at 37-41, 178, 204.) During the hearing, Ms. Hightower also alleged problems with depression and sleep apnea. (Tr. at 37-41).

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.

         The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).

         Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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 make a finding of not disabled. See id.

         The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(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), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ first found that Ms. Hightower met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015. (Tr. at 13.) She found that Ms. Hightower has not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset date. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, migraine headaches, obstructive sleep apnea, morbid obesity, generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder and somatic symptom disorder are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, the ALJ found that these impairments in combination neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 14.)

         The ALJ determined that Ms. Hightower has the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: she cannot have concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures or exposure to hazards; she can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; she can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions and attend to those for two-hour periods; she should have limited and casual contact with the general public; and changes to her work environment should be infrequent and introduced gradually. (Tr. at 16.) The ALJ next determined that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (Tr. at 21.) She noted that she was a “younger individual age 18-44, ” had a “limited education” and could communicate in English, as those terms are defined in the regulations. (Id.) The ALJ then determined that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform, including general office clerk, inspector/sorter, and production and table worker. (Tr. at 21-22, 55-57.) The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Ms. Hightower “was not under a ‘disability, ' as defined in the Social Security Act, ” at any time through the date of her decision. (Tr. at 21-23.)

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied. See 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)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “The substantial evidence standard permits administrative decision makers to act with considerable latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.'” Parker v. Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J., dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the proof preponderates ...


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