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Wallace v. Berryhill

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

March 19, 2018

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Vickie D. Wallace brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying the continuation of her disability benefits. (Doc. 1).[1] The case has been assigned to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to this court's general order of reference. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of this court for disposition of the matter. (See Doc. 8). See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(a). Upon review of the record and the relevant law, the undersigned finds that the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.


         Plaintiff was determined on June 16, 2006, to be disabled beginning April 5, 2005, based on severe impairments of depression and status post left shoulder injury. (R. 26, 28, 141). The Social Security Administration sent Plaintiff for psychological and physical examinations in June and July 2012 (R. 375, 379) and concluded on October 2, 2012, that she was no longer disabled as of October 2012. (R. 138-39, 141). This determination was upheld on reconsideration after a disability hearing by a State agency Disability Hearing Officer. (R. 142-66).

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). (R. 167, 238). An ALJ held hearings in May 2014 and June 2015 and issued a decision on June 18, 2015, finding Plaintiff's disability ended effective October 2012. (R. 23-70, 96-119). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on December 23, 2016. (R. 1-6). The Commissioner's final decision is ripe for judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. FACTS

         Plaintiff was 46 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. She previously obtained her Associate of Arts degree. (R. 114-15, 529). She has worked in the past as a receiving clerk, motel housekeeper, office cleaner, and assistant manager of a pizza shop and truck deli. (R. 42, 377). As noted above, she was previously found to be disabled as of April 2005 based on the severe impairments of depression and status post left shoulder injury. (R. 28). Plaintiff now alleges that she is disabled due to her dislocated left shoulder, depression, panic attacks, type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, tinnitus, and arthritis in her hands. (R. 167, 238).

         Following administrative hearings, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's disability claim in accordance with the eight-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether her disability had ceased.[2] (R. 26-43). The ALJ found that the June 16, 2006 decision[3] was the most recent decision finding Plaintiff disabled and was the decision to be used for comparison with the present evidence. (R. 28). The ALJ observed that, at the time of the comparison point decision (“CPD”) -June 16, 2006-Plaintiff had impairments of a depressive disorder and a status post left shoulder injury, which resulted in marked limitations on her ability to perform basic work activities and an inability to perform even sedentary work or sustain a 40-hour workweek with adequate work attendance. (R. 28).

         The ALJ also found that as of October 2012, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a modified range of light work. (R. 37). Specifically, Plaintiff could lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; sit and stand/walk a total of six hours each in an eight-hour workday; frequently reach in all directions, handle, finger, feel, and push/pull, bilaterally; and occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs (Id.) She could not, however, climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. (Id.) Plaintiff needed to avoid exposure to unprotected heights and moving or dangerous machinery, and she required an environment free of concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, wetness, humidity, noise, vibration, fumes, odors, gases, dust, and poor ventilation. (Id.)

         The ALJ further found, based in part on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), that Plaintiff could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, including cashier, parking lot attendant, and toll collector. (R. 42, 62-63). Therefore, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's disability ended in October 2012 and she has not become disabled since that date. (R. 43).


         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of the court is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The 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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         The court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions 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, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. See Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).


         The regulations provide an eight-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant's disability continues. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f). The steps require an ALJ to determine:

(1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a listed impairment;
(3) whether there has been medical improvement;
(4) whether the medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to work;
(5) whether an exception applies to a finding of no medical improvement or a finding that medical improvement is not related to ...

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