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Wise v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

March 30, 2018

KATHERINE ASHLYNNE WISE, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, COMMISSIONER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Katherine Ashlynne Wise appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). (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 affirmed.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was seventeen years old at the time she filed her SSI application; she was twenty at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision. (See R. 52-53). Plaintiff has a high school education and speaks English; she has no work experience. (R. 52). A previous application for SSI benefits was adjudicated in Plaintiff's favor when she was a child; she was awarded benefits until she turned eighteen. (R. 36). Plaintiff filed the instant application on June 26, 2013, alleging a disability onset of August 1, 2007, due to rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. (Id.; R. 222).

         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 found Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since her application date. (R. 38). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis; undifferentiated connective tissue disease; Raynaud's Syndrome, and lupus. (R. 38-39).

         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. 39-41). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant can sit at least two hours without interruption and a total of at least six hours over the course of an eight-hour workday. The claimant can stand and/or walk at least two hours without interruption and a total of at least six hours over the course of an eight-hour workday. The claimant cannot climb ropes, poles, scaffolds or ladders. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The claimant can frequently use her upper extremities for reaching overhead, pushing, pulling, handling and fingering. The claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel and crouch. The claimant cannot crawl. The claimant can occasionally work in humidity, wetness, and extreme temperatures. The claimant can occasionally work in dusts, gases, odors and fumes. The claimant cannot work in poorly ventilated areas. The claimant cannot work at unprotected heights. The claimant cannot work with operating hazardous machinery. The claimant can occasionally work while exposed to vibration. The claimant can occasionally operate motorized vehicles. The claimant can respond appropriately to the public; however, the claimant is limited to work activity that does not require interaction with the public (due to fear of possible infection and not mental impairment).

(R. 41).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. 52). Because the Plaintiff's RFC did not allow for the full range of light work, 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. 52-53). The ALJ concluded by finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 53).

         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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