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Benefield v. Social Security Administration

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

March 12, 2018

MELISSA ANN BENEFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

Plaintiff Melissa Ann Benefield appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Plaintiff 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). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be reversed and remanded.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was forty-seven years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision. (R. 19, 199). She has a high school education and speaks English. (R. 19, 201, 203). Her past relevant work includes work as a chemical processing technician. (R. 18, 204). This job is classified as heavy, semi-skilled with specific vocational preparation. (R. 18). Plaintiff claimed an onset date of June 14, 2013, and stated she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since that time. (R. 12, 13, 203).

         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 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, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael L. Levinson found Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability. (R. 13). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and morbid obesity. (R. 13-14). Although the ALJ considered her hypertension and borderline diabetes, he found they were not severe because they did not meet the durational requirement or were adequately controlled by medication. (R. 14). Additionally, the ALJ found Plaintiff's alleged depression was not a medically determinable impairment because her allegations of a depressive disorder were not corroborated by the record evidence. (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments. (R. 14). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(a) with the following limitations:

She can lift and carry items weighing up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, sit for four hours and stand and/or walk for four hours in a normal eight-hour workday. She can occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.

(Id.).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (R. 18). Because the Plaintiff's RFC did not allow for the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) as evidence for finding a significant number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff can perform. (R. 19). The ALJ concluded by finding Plaintiff was not disabled at the fifth step. (Id.).

         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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