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Clapper v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 23, 2018

TONY CLAPPER, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Danny Monroe Clapper (“Clapper”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 205(g) of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). (Doc. 1). Clapper timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is


         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Clapper protectively filed an application for SSI on July 5, 2011, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2007. (Tr. 62, 207). The Commissioner initially denied Clapper's claim, (tr. 85-87), and Clapper requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), (tr. 93- 95). After a hearing on April 11, 2013 (at which Clapper amended his onset date to October 11, 2011, (tr. 404)), the ALJ denied Clapper's claim on June 21, 2013. (Tr. 64-81). Clapper sought review by the Appeals Council; it granted review, vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded Clapper's claim for further proceedings. (Tr. 82-84).[2]

         On remand, the ALJ held another hearing on March 30, 2015. (Tr. 444-73). On September 4, 2015, he again denied Clapper's claim. (Tr. 39-61). Clapper again sought review by the Appeals Council, but this time, on January 1, 2017, it denied his request for review. (Tr. 3-8). On that date, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On March 14, 2017, Clapper initiated this action. (Doc. 1).

         Clapper was fifty-two years old on the date of the ALJ's last decision. (Tr. 39, 207). Clapper reported he quit school after the fifth grade and had previous work as an electrician and electrician's helper. (Tr. 180-206, 210-11, 221-24, 327, 332-33).

         II. Standard of Review[3]

         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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1422 (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). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         This Court must uphold factual findings that are supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ's legal conclusions 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 the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. 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.[4] 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 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.

         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 the 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). “Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, [he] will automatically be found disabled if [he] suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform [his] 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 such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge

         After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ made the following findings:

         At Step One, the ALJ found Clapper had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 5, 2011, his application date. (Tr. 45). At Step Two, the ALJ found Clapper has the following medically determinable impairments: history of mild osteoarthritis, knees, and small joint effusion, left knee; history of mild osteoarthritis and mild chondromalacia of the right knee; generalized arthritis; lumbago; mood disorder, not otherwise specified, with mild features of anxiety, stable with medication compliance versus depressive disorder, not otherwise specified; and history of substance abuse, to wit: alcohol. (Tr. 45). However, the ALJ concluded none of these impairments, alone or in combination, cause greater than slight limitation in Clapper's capacity for work activity. (Tr. 46). Accordingly, he determined the impairments are nonsevere, (tr. 60-61), that Clapper had not been under a disability since his application date, (tr. 61).

         V. Analysis

         Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported by substantial evidence or because improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his does not relieve the court of its responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding.” Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)). The court, however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).

         Clapper raises five objections to the denial of SSI: (1) the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the opinion of Dr. Glenn Archibald, Clapper's treating physician; (2) the ALJ failed to accord proper weight to the opinion of Dr. Dana Davis, and instead substituted his opinion for hers; (3) Clapper meets Listing 12.04 and/or Listing 12.05C; (4) the finding Clapper can perform his past work is not supported by substantial evidence; and (5) the ALJ is biased against claimants in general, which tainted his decision. (Doc. 12 at 2). Upon review of the parties' briefing and the record, none of these grounds supports reversal. The undersigned has combined some of these arguments for convenience, but all are addressed below.

         A. The ALJ Properly ...

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