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Lowman v. Berryhill

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

September 24, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.



         Kelli Lowman brings this action pursuant to Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final adverse decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). The court finds that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) and the Appeals Council's decisions-which have become the decision of the Commissioner-are supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the court AFFIRMS the decision denying benefits.


         Lowman filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability beginning on September 5, 2011. R. 119-20, 171-72. Lowman was last insured for disability benefits on December 31, 2012. R. 20, 119. After the SSA denied her application, Lowman requested a hearing before an ALJ, who subsequently denied Lowman's claim. R. 20-44, 72-117, 126-30. This became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council refused to grant review. R. 1-7. Lowman then filed this action pursuant to § 405(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Doc. 1.


         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.” See id. (citing 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, 849 F.2d at 1529 (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239) (other citations omitted). If supported by substantial evidence, the court must affirm the Commissioner's factual findings even if the preponderance of the evidence is against the Commissioner's findings. See Martin, 894 F.2d at 1529. While the court acknowledges that judicial review of the ALJ's findings is limited in scope, it notes that the review “does not yield automatic affirmance.” Lamb, 847 F.2d at 701.


         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)(I)(A). 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). The disability must have begun on or before the date that the individual was last insured for disability benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423 (a)(1)(A), (c)(1).

         Determination of disability under the Act requires a five step analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f). Specifically, the Commissioner 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.

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. at 1030 (citing 20 C.F.R.§ 416.920(a)-(f)). “Once a finding is made that a claimant cannot return to prior work the burden shifts to the Secretary to show other work the claimant can do.” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).


         In performing the five step analysis, the ALJ found that Lowman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from September 5, 2011 through December 31, 2012, and therefore met step one. R. 25. Next, the ALJ found that Lowman satisfied step two because she suffered from the severe impairments of left temporal lobe contusion with closed head trauma, cervicalgia with bulging C5-6 disc, brachial neuritis or radiculitis, headaches, and arthropathy. R. 25. The ALJ then proceeded to the next step and found that Lowman did not satisfy Step Three because her impairments did not meet or equal any listing. R. 30. Although the ALJ answered step three in the negative, consistent with the law, see McDaniel, 800 F.2d at 1030, the ALJ proceeded to step four, and determined that Lowman has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, except she was capable of performing non-complex job tasks requiring simple one- or two-step procedures, could have occasional contact with the general public and with co-workers, and could engage in frequent, but not continuous, overhead reaching and lifting. R. 33. In light of Lowman's RFC, the ALJ determined that Lowman was not able to perform any of her past relevant work. R. 38. Lastly, in step five, the ALJ considered Lowman's age, education, work experience, and RFC, and determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Lowman can perform. R. 39, 115-16. Therefore, the ALJ found that Lowman was not disabled under the Act. R. 40.

         V. ANALYSIS

         Lowman contends that the ALJ erred by improperly weighing the opinions of Dr. Ochuko Odjegba and Dr. Jon Rogers; failing to consider all of Lowman's severe impairments; mistakenly finding that Lowman's disabilities did not meet or equal any listing; and failing to state adequate ...

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