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Whitten v. Berryhill

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

June 19, 2018

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



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Sarah Whitten (“Ms. Whitten”) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Ms. Whitten seeks a review of a final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), who denied her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). Ms. Whitten exhausted the administrative remedies available before the Commissioner. This case is now ripe for judicial review under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         The Court carefully reviewed the record and AFFIRMS the ALJ's decision.

         II. Relevant Background

         The amended alleged onset date is December 12, 2013. (Tr. 51). Ms. Whitten suffers from numerous severe impairments, but the ALJ found that none rendered her disabled. (Id. at 53-54, 67). Ms. Whitten filed an application for Social Security benefits on December 12, 2013. (Id. at 51). The Social Security Administration denied that application on March 16, 2014. (Id.). Administrative Law Judge Bruce W. MacKenzie held a hearing on September 24, 2015. (Id. at 51, 67). The ALJ issued his decision on December 28, 2015, which was unfavorable to Ms. Whitten. (Id. at 67). In that opinion, the ALJ found that Ms. Whitten did not meet the disability standard at Steps Three and Five. (Id. at 54, 66). Ms. Whitten requested the Appeals Council review the claim. (Id. at 2-5). The Appeals Council refused. (Id.).

         III. Standards

         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). This court will determine that the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence if it finds “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. Substantial evidence is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. Factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld by the court.

         The ALJ's legal conclusions, however, are reviewed 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, the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         IV. 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.[1] 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 an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence about a “physical or mental impairment” that “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 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). The sequential analysis goes as follows:

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 that such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         V. Finding of the Administrative Law Judge

         After considering the record, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 12, 2013, the application date (20 CFR 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: obesity; status post lumbar laminectomy L4/5; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine at ¶ 1/2; degenerative joint disease of the right knee; degenerative joint disease of the left shoulder; and major depressive disorder (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity, generally, to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b). The undersigned further finds, however, that the full range of light work that could be performed by the claimant is reduced by the following exertional and non-exertional, functional limitations: the claimant would require a sit/stand option with the retained ability to stay on or at a work station in no less than 30 minute increments each without significant reduction of remaining on task and she is able to ambulate short distances up to 100 yards per instance on flat hard surfaces. She is able to frequently use foot controls bilaterally. She can frequently reach overhead bilaterally. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders or scaffolds. She can frequently balance but can only occasionally stoop and never crouch, kneel, or crawl. The claimant should never be exposed to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, dangerous tools, hazardous processes or operate commercial motor vehicles. She can tolerate frequent exposure to weather, atmospheric conditions, humidity and wetness. She can tolerate occasional exposure to extreme heat and vibration and should never be exposed to extreme cold. She should be exposed to no more than moderate noise levels. The undersigned further finds that the claimant could only remember short simple instructions and would be unable to deal with detailed or complex instructions. She could do simple routine repetitive tasks but would be unable to do detailed or complex tasks. She would be limited to making simple work related decisions and should have no more than occasional contact with the general public but could have frequent interaction with co-workers and ...

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