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Brown v. Berryhill

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

September 24, 2018

CHRISTIE BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Christie Brown, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Ms. Brown 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. Brown was 38 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision, and she has an eighth-grade education, as well as a General Equivalency Diploma (“GED”). (Tr. at 42.) Her past work experiences include detailing cars and moving chickens through processing at a plant. (Tr. at 42, 44.) Ms. Brown claims that she became disabled on January 18, 2012, due to chronic lower back pain and neck pain with degenerative disc disease and degenerative joint disease; thoracic spine pain associated with a compression fracture at T-11; migraines; right knee pain associated with arthritic changes and degeneration of the medial compartment; asthma and allergies; irritable bowel syndrome; obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia; mental illnesses including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia; chronic daily headaches; paresthesia; scoliosis; osteoarthritis; gastroesophageal reflux disease; and post-concussive syndrome which includes personality changes. (Doc. 12 at 1-2.)

         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 the 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 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 or 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 found that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2013. (Tr. at 17.) Thus, she had to establish that she was disabled on or before that date to be eligible for DIB. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(3), 423(a), (c); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.101, 404.130, 404.131. He further determined that Ms. Brown has not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of her disability through her last insured date. (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; diabetes mellitus type II; cervical degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy; lumbar degenerative disc disease; scoliosis with low back pain; gastroesophageal reflux disease; coronary artery disease; general anxiety disorder; obesity; and chronic headaches are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Tr. at 17-18.) 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 18.) The ALJ did not find Ms. Brown's allegations to be totally credible, and he determined that she has the following RFC:

light work as defined in 20 C.F.R § 404.1567 (b) except that the plaintiff can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, and stairs. She can occasionally balance, stoop, crouch, crawl, or kneel. She is limited to occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants including gases, dust, odors, and fumes. She must avoid any exposure to unprotected heights or to uneven terrain. She is limited to work that requires no more than the understanding, remembering, and carrying out of simple instructions; occasional decision making; and occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors.

(Tr. at 21.)

         According to the ALJ, through the date last insured, Ms. Brown was unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she is a “younger individual, ” and she has “at least a high school education, ” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 25-26.) He determined that “[t]ransferability of skills is not an issue in this case because the claimant's past relevant work was unskilled.” (Id.) Because Plaintiff cannot perform the full range of light work, the ALJ enlisted a vocational expert (“VE”) and used Medical-Vocation Rule 201.25 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 an assembler, a laundry folder, and a hand packager. (Tr. at 26-27.) The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff “was not under a ‘disability,' as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from January 18, 2012, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2013, the date last insured.” (Tr. at 27.)

         II. ...


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