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Helms v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

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

November 26, 2018

SHANNON HELMS, Plaintiff
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Shannon Helms seeks judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of an adverse, final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner” or “Secretary”), regarding her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). For the reasons stated below, the court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         LAW AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish entitlement for a period of disability, the claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder. The Regulations[1] define “disabled” as the “inability to do 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 (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish an entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         In determining whether a claimant suffers a disability, the Commissioner, through an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), works through a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The burden rests upon the claimant on the first four steps of this five-step process; the Commissioner sustains the burden at step five, if the evaluation proceeds that far. Washington v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 906 F.3d 1353, 1359 (11th Cir. 2018).

         In the first step, the claimant cannot be currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Second, the claimant must prove the impairment is “severe” in that it “significantly limits [the] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” Id. at § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the evaluator must conclude the claimant is disabled if [the] impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, §§ 1.00-114.02. Id. at § 404.1520(d). If a claimant's impairment meets the applicable criteria at this step, that claimant's impairments would prevent any person from performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1525, 416.920(a)(4)(iii). That is, a claimant who satisfies steps one and two qualifies automatically for disability benefits if they suffer from a listed impairment. See Williams v. Astrue, 416 Fed.Appx. 861, 862 (11th Cir. 2011) (“If, at the third step, [the claimant] proves that [an] impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, [the claimant] is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience.”) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920).

         If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step where the claimant demonstrates an incapacity to meet the physical and mental demands of past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). At this step, the evaluator must determine whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent performance of past relevant work, the evaluator will determine the claimant is not disabled. See id.

         If the claimant is successful at the preceding step, the fifth step shifts the burden to the Commissioner to prove, considering claimant's RFC, age, education and past work experience, whether the claimant is capable of performing other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f)(1). If the claimant can perform other work, the evaluator will not find the claimant disabled. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the claimant cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find the claimant disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         The court reviews the ALJ's “‛decision with deference to the factual findings and close scrutiny of the legal conclusions.'” Parks ex rel. D.P. v. Comm'r, Social Sec. Admin., 783 F.3d 847, 850 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11thCir. 1991)). The court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards. Winschel v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1178 (11th Cir. 2011). Although the 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) (citations omitted), the court “may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ. Winschel, 631 F.3d at 1178 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citations omitted). Nonetheless, substantial evidence exists even if the evidence preponderates against the Commissioner's decision. Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Ms. Helms worked for more than 30 years at a hosiery mill, as a miller, a turn sew operator, an inspector, a knitter, and a pairer and boarder. In April 2008, Helms underwent right carpal tunnel release surgery. She continued to work until 2008, when the hosiery mill laid her off. (Tr. 41). Thereafter, she stayed home to care for her husband after he underwent two open heart surgeries. (Tr. 42, 64-67). In June 2016, after her date last insured, Helms underwent knee surgery to address problems occurring after she left the mill.

         Ms. Helms initially applied for disability benefits on October 27, 2014, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2009. She alleged disability due to fibromyalgia, hypertension, diabetes, and hip problems. (Tr. 79). The ALJ held a hearing on August 23, 2016, at which time Helms was 53 years old. At the hearing, Helms alleged disability due to knee problems and overall pain.

         In his December 2, 2016, decision, the ALJ first determined that Ms. Helms met the Social Security Act's insured status requirements through June 30, 2013. The ALJ further found that Helms had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2009, the alleged onset date, through the date last insured. At step two, the ALJ identified the ...


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