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Drummonds v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

September 28, 2018

BILLIE DRUMMONDS, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The plaintiff, Billie Drummonds, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Drummonds timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the Commissioner's decision is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. Procedural History

         Drummonds has a high school degree and completed three years of college. (Tr. at 54). She has previously worked as an accountant, a controller, and a cashier. (Id. at 54-57). In her applications for DIB and SSI, Drummonds alleged she became disabled on August 20, 2013 (id. at 282, 288), as a result of spondylosis and a pinched nerve in her lumbar spine (id. at 345, 374). After her claims were denied, Drummonds requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 181). Following a hearing (id. at 50-72), the ALJ denied Drummonds' claims. (Id. at 129-46). The Appeals Council remanded to the ALJ for further consideration of Drummonds' residual functional capacity. (Id. at 151-54).

         The ALJ held a new hearing (id. at 73-99), following which he again denied Drummonds' claims (id. at 17-42). Drummonds was forty-seven years old when the ALJ issued his second decision. (Id. at 42, 282). After the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's second decision (id. at 1-3), that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Frye v. Massanari, 209 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1251 (N.D. Ala. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). Thereafter, Drummonds initiated this action. (Doc. 1).

         II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

          To establish her eligibility 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. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A); see also Id. at § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). Furthermore, a DIB claimant must show she was disabled between her alleged initial onset date and her date last insured. Mason v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 430 Fed.Appx. 830, 831 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1209, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Demandre v. Califano, 591 F.2d 1088, 1090 (5th Cir. 1979)). The Social Security Administration employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). “Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that [she] is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) and (b), 416.920(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first step, the ALJ determined Drummonds met the Social Security Administration's insured status requirements through December 31, 2018, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of August 20, 2013. (Tr. at 21).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Furthermore, it “must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms.” Id. at §§ 404.908, 416.908; see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D). An impairment is severe if it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).[2]“[A]n impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments, even though none of the individual impairments alone is disabling. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. The claimant bears the burden of providing medical evidence demonstrating an impairment and its severity. Id. at §§ 404.1512(a) and (c), 416.912(a) and (c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) and (c). At the second step, the ALJ determined Drummonds has the following severe impairments: multilevel spondylosis of the cervical and lumbar spine, morbid obesity, and sciatica. (Tr. at 21).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment meets or equals one of the “Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); see also Id. at §§ 404.1525-26, 416.925-26. The claimant bears the burden of proving her impairment meets or equals one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the Listings, the Commissioner will find the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and (d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined Drummonds does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. at 23-25).

         If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. Id. at §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e); see also Id. at §§ 404.1545, 416.945. A claimant's RFC is the most she can do despite her impairments. See Id. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare his assessment of the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 404.1560(b), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 416.960(b). “Past relevant work is work that [the claimant] [has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it.” Id. §§ 404.1560(b)(1), 416.960(b)(1). The claimant bears the burden of proving her impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, the Commissioner will find the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1560(b)(3), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.960(b)(3). Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ determined Drummonds has the RFC to perform a limited range[3] of light work.[4] (Tr. at 25- 38). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Drummonds is able to perform her past relevant work as an accountant, a controller, and a cashier. (Id. at 38-40). Nonetheless, [5] the ALJ proceeded to the fifth step and additionally determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as those of electronics worker, storage facility rental clerk, office helper, production assembler, and wire worker, Drummonds can perform given her age, education, work experience, and RFC. (Id. at 40-41). Based on his determinations at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ concluded Drummonds is not disabled. (Id. at 41).

         III. Standard of Review

          Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination of whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A district court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district 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) (internal citations omitted). 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. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         A district court reviews the Commissioner's legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted ...


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