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Nance v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

August 31, 2018




         Kimberly Yvette Nance brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). This court finds that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) applied the correct legal standard and that his decision-which has become the decision of the Commissioner-is supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the court AFFIRMS the decision denying benefits.

         I. Procedural History

         Nance worked as a certified nursing assistant for more than fifteen years until she stopped working in 2013 at age 41 due to her alleged disability. Doc. 7-3 at 62, 71. Nance filed her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits on October 7, 2013, asserting that she suffered from a disability, beginning September 17, 2013, caused by a failed lumbar disc repair and several other disabling impairments, including osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and depression. Docs. 7-3 at 34; 7-4 at 2-4, 7; 7-6 at 2. The SSA denied Nance's application, doc. 7-5 at 4, and, shortly thereafter, Nance requested a formal hearing before an ALJ, id. at 10.

         At the hearing held on April 7, 2015, Nance was represented by a non-attorney. Doc. 7-3 at 34, 58. The ALJ subsequently entered a decision finding that Nance was not disabled. Id. at 31, 49-50. Nance obtained new representation and appealed. Id. at 28-29. The SSA Appeals Council summarily affirmed the ALJ's decision denying disability benefits, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 2. Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Nance filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1383(c)(3) and 405(g). Doc. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         The only issues before this court are whether the record contains substantial evidence to sustain the ALJ's decision, see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982), and whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards, see Lamb v. Bowen, 847 F.2d 698, 701 (11th Cir. 1988); Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986). Title 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) mandate that the Commissioner's “factual findings are conclusive if supported by ‘substantial evidence.'” Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). The district court may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner; instead, it must review the final decision as a whole and determine if the decision is “‘reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.'” Id. (quoting Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         Substantial evidence falls somewhere between a scintilla and a preponderance of evidence; “‘[i]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239). If supported by substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner's factual findings even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. See Id. While judicial review of the ALJ's findings is limited in scope, it “does not yield automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.

         In contrast to the deferential review accorded the Commissioner's factual findings, “conclusions of law, including applicable review standards, are not presumed valid” and are subject to de novo review. Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. The Commissioner's failure to “apply the correct legal standards or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient basis for a determination that proper legal principles have been followed” requires reversal. Id.

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show the “inability to engage in 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 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1). A physical or mental impairment is “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrated by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

         Determination of disability under the Social Security Act requires a five-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). Specifically, the ALJ must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently unemployed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the impairment meets or equals one listed by the Secretary;
(4) whether the claimant is unable to perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is unable to perform any work in the national economy.

See McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative answer to any of the above questions leads either to the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than step three, leads to a determination of ‘not disabled.'” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f)). “Once [a] finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden of proof shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). However, the claimant ultimately bears the burden of proving that she is disabled, and, “consequently [s]he is responsible for producing evidence in support of he[r] claim.” See, e.g., Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a), (c)).

         IV. The ALJ's Decision

         In performing the five-step analysis, the ALJ first determined that Nance met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017, and that she had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity since September 17, 2013, the alleged onset date” of her disability. Doc. 7-3 at 35. Accordingly, the ALJ proceeded to Step Two of the analysis, finding that Nance had the following severe impairments: “obesity, lumbar degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, and depression.” Id. at 37. The ALJ also identified numerous non-severe impairments including: “hypothyroidism, gastroenteritis, vitamin D deficiency, left ankle/foot sprain, upper respiratory infection, bursitis, mitral valve prolapse, and hematuria.” Id. Significantly, the ALJ concluded that Nance had failed to establish her history of fibromyalgia as a medically determinable impairment. Id. at 39. In any event, because he found that three of Nance's impairments are severe, id. at 37, the ALJ proceeded to Step Three of the analysis and found that none of Nance's impairments, considered singly or in combination, met or “medically equal[ed] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 . . . .” Id. at 39.

         Next, the ALJ determined Nance's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), finding that:

[Nance] has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR ยง 404.1567(b) except [she], as part of a job requirement, should not climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, nor perform around work hazards. [Nance] could occasionally climb ramps or stairs, kneel or crawl; and [she] could frequently stoop or crouch. Additionally, [Nance] could understand and remember simple instructions and carry out those instructions and sustain attention to routine tasks for extended periods. [Nance] cold tolerate ordinary work pressure, but should avoid quick decision-making, rapid changes and multiple demands. [Nance] would benefit from regular rest breaks and a slowed pace but can maintain a work pace consistent with the mental demands of competitive level work. Contact ...

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