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Washington v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

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

March 20, 2018

GRETA WASHINGTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          JOHN H. ENGLAND, III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Greta Washington (“Washington”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income. (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). Washington timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Washington protectively filed her application for SSI on February 21, 2013, alleging she became unable to work beginning November 1, 2010.[2] (Tr. 43, 168-172). The Agency initially denied Washington's application (tr. 43, 107-17), and Washington requested a hearing (tr. 43, 128-30) where she appeared on August 11, 2014 (tr. 43, 60-106). After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Washington's claim on October 31, 2014. (Tr. 40-59). Washington sought review by the Appeals Council, but it declined her request on March 21, 2016. (Tr. 1-7). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On May 24, 2016, Washington initiated this action. (See doc. 1).

         Born in 1968, Washington was forty-seven-years old when the ALJ denied her claim. (Tr. 55, 168). She has a GED (tr. 208), and previously worked as a fast food cashier, cleaner, packer, and at a plant nursery (tr. 209). Washington alleges disability due to a dislocated shoulder, heel spurs, arthritis, high blood pressure, bad ankles, left side constantly hurts, carpal tunnel, and back pain. (Tr. 207). Washington states she stopped working on November 1, 2010, because of her condition. (Id.).

         II. Standard of Review[3]

         The court's review of the Commissioner's decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this Court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This 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.

         This Court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence. “Substantial evidence may even exist contrary to the findings of the ALJ, and [the reviewing court] may have taken a different view of it as a factfinder. Yet, if there is substantially supportive evidence, the findings cannot be overturned.” Barron v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 227, 230 (11th Cir. 1991). However, the Court 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 the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[4] The Regulations define “disabled” as “the inability to do 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 twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to the formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.” Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge

         After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ made the following findings:

         At Step One, the ALJ found Washington had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 21, 2013, the application date. (Tr. 45). At Step Two, the ALJ found Washington has the following severe impairments: plantar fasciitis (heel pain) NOS, chronic left hip pain, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), depression, and anxiety. (Id.). At Step Three, the ALJ found Washington did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 45-47).

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Washington's residual functioning capacity (“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ determined that Washington had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b), with certain exertional and non-exertional limitations. (Tr. 47-53).

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined Washington is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 53). At Step Five, the ALJ determined, based on Washington's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy Washington could perform. (Tr. 53-54). Therefore, the ALJ determined Washington has not been under a disability and denied her claim. (Tr. 54-55).

         V. Analysis

         Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported by substantial evidence or because improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his does not relieve the court of its responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding.” Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)). The court, however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).

         Here, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination Washington failed to demonstrate a disability, and the ALJ applied the proper standards to reach this conclusion. Washington challenges the Commissioner's decision on eight grounds. (See doc. 10 at 1-2, 4). These challenges will be addressed as follows: (A) challenges based on lack of substantial evidence: (1) Dr. Herrera's opinion and (2) the ALJ's RFC assessment; (B) challenge to finding regarding severe impairments; (C) evaluation of Washington's ...


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