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Whittle v. Berryhill

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

March 7, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Virginia Whittle brings this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Plaintiff seeks review of the decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Based on the court's review of the record and briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.

         I. Facts, Framework, and Procedural History

         At the time of the decision, Plaintiff was fifty-eight years old, with a high school education. (R. 23, 25, 50). She was 5'6” and weighed 260 pounds. (R. 58). She previously worked as a sewing machine operator which is classified as semi-skilled, light work. (R. 25). Plaintiff stopped working in 2010 when the sock factory where she worked closed. (R. 37, 318). She received unemployment benefits until November 2012. (R. 318). Since the 1990s, Plaintiff has experienced problems with anxiety, including panic attacks and problems being around people when she was working. (R. 41, 59). Plaintiff testified her physical problems involve her back, which was injured in a car accident, and her left arm which hurts from pulling socks. (R. 46, 56). She also testified she experiences pain in her heel which limits her walking, and she must elevate her feet if she stands for periods of time. (R. 46, 48).

         Plaintiff's daily activities include performing self-care tasks, going to church, going to the store, washing dishes, doing laundry, sweeping the floor, and doing light housework. (R. 41, 45, 319-20). She drives to town and to her sister's house for visits. (R. 53, 320). She cares for a dog and prepares simple meals. (R. 212-13). Plaintiff watches television, reads the newspaper, and calls her mother regularly. (R. 320). She testified medications help her mental and emotional issues. (R. 54).

         Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB on April 3, 2013, alleging disability since March 16, 2013.[2] (R. 14, 102). The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application. (R. 106-11). On July 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Request for Hearing and received a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Jerome L. Munford (“ALJ”) on March 16, 2015. (R. 112-13, 31-68). On May 29, 2015, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled under the criteria set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. (R. 14-27). On June 25, 2015, Plaintiff requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. (R. 7). The appeal was denied on September 12, 2016. (R. 1-3). Accordingly, the final decision of the Commissioner is properly before the court for appellate review.[3]

         When evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the Commissioner proceeds to consider the combined effects of all the claimant's physical and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet durational requirements before a claimant will be found disabled. Id. The decision depends on the medical evidence in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the analysis continues to step three, at which the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments meet the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairments fall within this category, the claimant will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If the impairments do not fall within the listings, the Commissioner determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         At step four the Commissioner determines whether the impairments prevent the claimant from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, he or she is not disabled, and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, at which the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience, to determine whether he or she can perform other work. Id; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, he or she is not disabled. Id.

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of March 16, 2013. At the second step, Plaintiff was found to have the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, anxiety, left shoulder pain, obesity, and chronic lower back pain. (R. 17-19).

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments, although severe, do not meet or functionally equal one of the listed impairments necessary to constitute a disability under the Act. (R. 20-21). As to Plaintiff's physical impairments, the ALJ found Listing 1.02, major dysfunction of a joint, was not met because Plaintiff is able to ambulate effectively and perform fine gross movements with each upper extremity. (R. 20). The ALJ further found Listing 1.04, disorders of the spine, was not met because there was no evidence of compression of a nerve root, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication. (Id.). As to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ found, considered singly and in combination, the severity of her mental impairments do not meet or equal the criteria of Listings 12.04 and 12.06. (R. 20-21).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), with the following limitations: no frequent stooping or crouching; no more than occasional climbing; no work at unrestricted heights; no driving; no work requiring production goals or quotas; simple, non-complex tasks; work primarily with or around things and not people; and only casual contact with the general public. (R. 22). Because the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work at step four (R. 25), the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) in finding a significant number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 26). Thus, Plaintiff was found not to be disabled at step five of the five-step sequential evaluation process. (R. at 27).

         II. Standard of Review

         A 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 Fed.Appx. 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). A 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, a 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 a court finds that the proof preponderates ...

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