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Blevins v. Berryhill

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

September 17, 2018

BARBARA BLEVINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Barbara Blevins, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Ms. Blevins 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).

         Ms. Blevins was thirty-nine years old at the time of her application and forty-one years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision. (Tr. at 33, 135.) She has a high school education and some college, and past work experience as a substitute teacher. (Tr. at 151, 166-68.) Ms. Blevins claims that she became disabled on May 25, 2012, [1] due to adjustment disorder, depression, obesity, primary fibromyalgia syndrome (fibromyalgia), hypothyroidism, essential hypertension, and osteoarthritis. (Tr. at 22.)

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.

         The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416. 909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that the plaintiff was not disabled).

         Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the plaintiff's impairment, or combination of impairments, does not meet a medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing his past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.

         The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ first determined that Ms. Blevins has not engaged in SGA since February 5, 2014, the application date. (Tr. at 22.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's adjustment disorder, depression, obesity, fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, essential hypertension, and osteoarthritis are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, he found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 23.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Blevins's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 § C.F.R. § 416.967(a) with additional limitations. (Tr. at 25). Plaintiff could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, could not work at unprotected heights or on uneven terrain, could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs, could understand, remember and carry out simple instructions for two-hour periods and with normal breaks, and sustain those activities over the course of an eight-hour workday, could tolerate occasional decision-making and infrequent changes in the work setting, and could tolerate occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. (Id.)

         According to the ALJ, Plaintiff has no past relevant work (because her past work as a substitute teacher was not performed at SGA level), she is a “young individual age 18-44, ” she has “at least a high school education, ” and she is able to communicate in English, as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Id.) The ALJ determined that transferability of job skills is not an issue because Plaintiff does not have past relevant work. (Id.) Because Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of sedentary work, the ALJ enlisted a vocational expert (“VE”) and used Medical-Vocational Rule 201.27 as a guideline for finding that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as table worker, dowel inspector, and packager. (Tr. at 32.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since February 5, 2014, the date the SSI application was filed. (Tr. at 32.)

         II. Standard of Review

         This 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)). This 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, this 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 this Court finds that the proof preponderates ...


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