United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
M. BORDEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
NATURE OF THE CASE
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
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
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
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).
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).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
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
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).
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
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the
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.
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.
ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
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. ...