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Caudle v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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

August 31, 2018

MONICA CAUDLE, Plaintiff
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Monica Caudle seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of an adverse, final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), regarding her claim for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The undersigned has carefully considered the record, and for the reasons stated below, AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         LAW AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish entitlement for a period of disability, the claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations[1] 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 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.

         In determining whether a claimant suffers a disability, the Commissioner, through an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The burden rests upon the claimant on the first four steps of this five-step process; the Commissioner sustains the burden at step five, if the evaluation proceeds that far. Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11thCir. 1999).

         In the first step, the claimant cannot be currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove the impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the evaluator must conclude the claimant is disabled if the impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.02. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If a claimant's impairment meets the applicable criteria at this step, that claimant's impairments would prevent any person from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1525. That is, a claimant who satisfies steps one and two qualifies automatically for disability benefits if they suffer from a listed impairment. See Jones, 190 F.3d at 1228 (“If, at the third step, [the claimant] proves that [an] impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, [the claimant] is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).

         If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step where the claimant demonstrates an incapacity to meet the physical and mental demands of past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At this step, the evaluator must determine whether the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent performance of past relevant work, the evaluator will determine the claimant is not disabled. See id.

         If the claimant is successful at the preceding step, the fifth step shifts the burden to the Commissioner to prove, considering claimant's RFC, age, education and past work experience, whether the claimant is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f)(1). If the claimant can perform other work, the evaluator will not find the claimant disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If the claimant cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g).

         The court reviews the ALJ's “‛decision with deference to the factual findings and close scrutiny of the legal conclusions.'” Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm'r, Social Sec. Admin., 783 F.3d 847, 850 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11thCir. 1991)). The court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards. Winschel v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). Although 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) (citations omitted), the court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citations omitted). Nonetheless, substantial evidence exists even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Caudle protectively filed an application for SSI on January 5, 2016, alleging disability beginning July 18, 2015. (Tr. 18, 123). The Commissioner denied her claims, and Caudle timely filed a request for a hearing on April 26, 2016. (Tr. 96-98). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on October 18, 2016. (Tr. 35-71). The ALJ issued an opinion denying Caudle's claim on January 30, 2017. (Tr. 15-30).

         Applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found at step one that Ms. Caudle had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 15, 2016. (Tr. 20). At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Caudle's impairments of obesity, borderline intellectual functioning, personality disorder, and depression were “severe” impairments during the relevant time period. (Tr. 20). At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Caudle's impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or equal any impairment for presumptive disability listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 21).

         Next, the ALJ found that Ms. Caudle exhibited the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work with the following non-exertional limitations: the claimant can lift 50 pounds occasionally, but never climb ladder, crouch, or perform around workplace hazards. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. She can sustain attention to routine and familiar tasks for extended periods. The claimant can tolerate ordinary work pressure, but should avoid quick decision-making, rapid changes, and multiple demands. She would benefit from regular breaks and slower pace, but is able to maintain a work pace consistent with mental demands of competitive level work. The claimant's contact with the public should be occasional and brief, no more than 30 minutes at a time. Feedback should be supportive. She can adapt to infrequent and well-explained changes in work setting and work expectations. (Tr. 23).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Caudle cannot perform her past relevant work as a floor hanger and retail sales clerk. (Tr. 28). At step five, based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that, considering Ms. Caudle's age, education, work experience, and RFC, a significant number of other jobs exist in the national economy that Ms. Caudle could perform, including line machine tender. (Tr. 29). Accordingly, the ALJ ...


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