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Kirkpatrick v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

November 20, 2018

MELISSA KIRKPATRICK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Melissa Kirkpatrick applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) alleging a disability date of June 18, 2014. R. 206-07 & 237. She later amended her alleged disability date to August 17, 2015. R. 24. The application was denied initially and again on reconsideration. R. 82-95. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. 49-81. The ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on October 5, 2016. R. 21. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. R. 4. As a result, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). Judicial review proceeds pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). After careful scrutiny of the record and briefs, for the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision is to be AFFIRMED.

         I. NATURE OF THE CASE

         Kirkpatrick seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits. United States District Courts may conduct limited review of the Commissioner's decisions to determine whether they comply with applicable law and are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405. The courts may affirm, reverse and remand with instructions, or reverse and render a judgment.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a limited one, and the sole function is to determine whether the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983).

         “The Social Security Act mandates that ‘findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.'” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Thus, this court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir. 1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla--it must do more than merely create a suspicion of the existence of a fact, and must include such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support the conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)).

         If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the district court will affirm even if the court would have reached a contrary result to that of the finder of fact, and even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's findings. Ellison v. Barnhart, 355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003); Edwards v. Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053 (11th Cir. 1986)). The court must view the evidence as a whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560 (citing Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986)). On review, the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner], ” but rather it “must defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239).

         The court also must reverse a Commissioner's decision on plenary review if the decision applies incorrect law or fails to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law. Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21 F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citing Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). There is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor, 786 F.2d at 1053).

         III. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         The Social Security Act's general disability insurance benefits program (“DIB”) provides income to individuals who are forced into involuntary, premature retirement, provided that they are both insured and disabled, regardless of indigence. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Social Security Act's Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) is a separate and distinct program. SSI is a general public assistance measure providing an additional resource to the aged, blind, and disabled to assure that their income does not fall below the poverty line. Eligibility for SSI is based upon proof of indigence and disability. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382(a) & 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C). Despite the fact they are separate programs, the laws and regulations governing a claim for DIB and a claim for SSI mirror each other such that claims for DIB and SSI are treated identically for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is disabled. Patterson v. Bowen, 799 F.2d 1455, 1456 n.1 (11th Cir. 1986). Applicants under DIB and SSI must prove “disability” within the meaning of the Social Security Act, which defines disability in virtually identical language for both programs. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3) & 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a) & 416.905(a). A person is entitled to disability benefits when the person is unable to

[e]ngage 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 12 months.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental impairment” is one resulting from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3) & 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner of Social Security employs a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is entitled to benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 & 416.920 (2010).

(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment(s) severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment(s) meet or equal one of the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “An affirmative answer to any of the 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. The burden of proof rests on a claimant through Step 4. Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-39 (11th Cir. 2004). Claimants establish a prima facie case of qualification for disability once they meet the burden of proof from Step 1 through Step 4. At Step 5, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id.

         To perform the fourth and fifth steps, the ALJ must determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). Id. at 1238-39. RFC is what the claimant remains able to do despite his impairments and is based on all relevant medical and other evidence. Id. It may contain both exertional and nonexertional limitations. Id. at 1242-43. At the fifth step, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if there are jobs available in the national economy the claimant can perform. Id. at 1239. To do this, the ALJ either uses the Medical Vocational Guidelines (the “grids”) or receives testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at 1239-40. The grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age, confinement to sedentary or light work, inability to speak English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job experience. Each factor independently can limit the number of jobs realistically available to an individual. Id. at 1240. Combining these factors yields a statutorily-required finding of “Disabled” or “Not Disabled.” Id.

         IV. ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS

         Kirkpatrick was 50 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. R. 36 & 237. She had attended college for two years and she had worked as a bus driver for 15 years. R. 77 & 241. Kirkpatrick alleged that she was unable to work due to fibromyalgia, arthritis, degenerative disease of the neck and back, obesity, depression, anxiety, and migraines. R. 240. ...


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