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Johnson v. Berryhill

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

March 5, 2018

JANIE MICHELE JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Janie Michele Johnson filed this action on November 14, 2016 seeking judicial review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Doc. 1. Johnson applied for disability benefits with an alleged disability onset date of March 1, 2014. Her application was denied at the initial administrative level. Johnson then requested and received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 22, 2015. Following that hearing, the ALJ denied Johnson's claims on November 4, 2015. The Appeals Council rejected a subsequent request for review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”).[1]

         With briefing complete, this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties have consented to the entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), Rule 73 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and Rule 73.1 of the Local Rules for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Docs. 8 & 9. Based upon a review of the evidentiary record, the parties' briefs, and the applicable legal authority, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be AFFIRMED.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court reviews a social security case to determine whether the Commissioner's decision “is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal standards.” Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1439 (11th Cir. 1997). The court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, ” but rather it “must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, the court must affirm the Commissioner's decision “if it is supported by substantial evidence and the correct legal standards were applied.” Kelly v. Apfel, 185 F.3d 1211, 1213 (11th Cir. 1999) (citing Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla-i.e., the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion.” Jones ex rel. T.J.J. v. Astrue, 2011 WL 1706465, at *1 (M.D. Ala. May 5, 2011) (citing Lewis, 125 F.3d at 1440). The court must scrutinize the entire record to determine the reasonableness of the decision reached. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1010 (11th Cir. 1987). “If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the court would have reached a contrary result as a finder of fact, and even if the court finds that the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision.” Jones, 2011 WL 1706465, at *2 (citing Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991)). The court will reverse the Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991); Jones, 2011 WL 1706465, at *2 (citing Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994)). There is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of law are valid. Id.

         II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         To qualify for disability 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. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). Johnson bears the burden of proving that she is disabled, and she is responsible for producing evidence to support her claim. See Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003).

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

(1) Is the claimant presently unemployed?
(2) Is the claimant's impairment severe?
(3) Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the claimant unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the claimant unable to perform any other work within the economy?

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.'” Id. at 1030 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f)). “Once the finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden of proof shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Gibson v. Heckler, 762 F.2d 1516 (11th Cir. 1985)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Facts

         Johnson was 48 years old on the alleged disability onset date. She has a high school education and past relevant work experience as an assistant retail manager, a dispatcher, and a clerical worker.

         Johnson filed for disability benefits based on stomach pain and distension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and liver problems. The ALJ held an administrative hearing on September 22, 2015. Following that hearing, the ALJ found that Johnson suffers from the severe impairments of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, abdominal distention, and obesity, but that none of those impairments or a combination of those impairments meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). The ALJ then determined that Johnson has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except that she can

never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and occasionally climb stairs, crouch, crawl, stoop, and kneel. The claimant must avoid work at unprotected heights and avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, dusts, and gasses [sic]. Due to medication, the claimant is limited to unskilled work, making simple decisions, with few workplace changes.

Doc. 13-2. Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Johnson was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and denied her claim. Johnson timely ...


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