United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division
TIMOTHY W. FRENCH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MICHAEL PUTNAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
plaintiff, Timothy W. French, appeals from the decision of
the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) denying his application for a
period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”). Mr. French timely pursued and exhausted
his administrative remedies and the decision of the
Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties have consented
to the exercise of dispositive jurisdiction by a magistrate
judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 8).
plaintiff was 44 years old on the alleged disability onset
date. (Tr. at 27). His past work experience includes
employment as a truck driver. (Tr. at 27). The plaintiff
claims that he became disabled on August 21, 2013, due to
chronic pancreatitis, arsenic poisoning, and “Gillians
[sic] Barre Syndrome.” (Tr. at 152).
evaluating the disability of individuals over the age of
eighteen, the regulations prescribe a five-step sequential
evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245
F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a
determination of whether the claimant is “doing
substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If he is, the claimant
is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If he
is not, the Commissioner next considers the effect of all of
the physical and mental impairments combined. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These
impairments must be severe and must meet the durational
requirements before a claimant will be found to be disabled.
Id. The decision depends on the medical evidence in
the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341
(5th Cir. 1971). If the claimant's impairments are not
severe, the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Otherwise, the
analysis continues to step three, which is a determination of
whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal the
severity of an impairment listed 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). If the
claimant's impairments fall within this category, he will
be found disabled without further consideration. Id.
If they do not, a determination of the claimant's
residual functional capacity will be made and the analysis
proceeds to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) is an assessment, based on all relevant
evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to do work
despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).
fourth step requires a determination of whether the
claimant's impairments prevent him from returning to past
relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still do his past
relevant work, the claimant is not disabled and the
evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot do past
relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.
Id. Step five requires the court to consider the
claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age,
education, and past work experience, in order to determine if
he or she can do other work. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do
other work, the claimant is not disabled. Id. The
burden is on the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs
exist which the claimant can perform; once that burden is
met, the claimant must prove his inability to perform those
jobs in order to be found disabled. Jones v. Apfel,
190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir. 1999).
the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that the
plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since his alleged disability onset date of December 11, 2014.
(Tr. at 19). According to the ALJ, the plaintiff has the
following impairments that are considered “severe,
” based on the requirements set forth in the
regulations: “chronic pancreatitis, gastroesophageal
reflux disease, obesity, major depressive disorder, and panic
disorder.” Id. The ALJ found that the
plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
Id. at 20. The ALJ found the plaintiff to have a
“mild limitation in understanding, remembering, or
applying information, mild limitation in interacting with
others, moderate limitation in concentrating, persisting, or
maintaining pace, and mild limitation in adapting or managing
oneself.” (Tr. at 20-1). The ALJ determined that the
plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform
work at a light level of exertion as defined in 20 CFR §
404.1567(b) with additional limitations. (Tr. at 23). The ALJ
…[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity
to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §
404.1567(b) except that he can occasionally balance, stoop,
climb ramps, and stairs, and push/pull with the lower
extremities bilaterally. He should not have exposure to
hazards. He can understand, remember, and carry out simple
instructions and attend to them for two-hour periods.
(Tr. at 23)
to the ALJ, the plaintiff is unable to perform any of his
past relevant work and has “at least a high school
education and is able to communicate in English” as
those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 27). She
determined that “[t]ransferability of job skills is not
material to the determination of disability because using the
Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding
that the claimant is ‘not disabled,' whether or not
the claimant has transferable job skills.” Id.
However, because she also determined that he could not
perform the full range of light duty, she received the
testimony of a vocational expert to determine whether there
are jobs in the national and local economies the claimant
could perform. Id. Even though the plaintiff is
limited to light work, the ALJ determined that there are a
significant number of jobs in the national economy that he is
capable of performing, such as marker, cleaner, and router.
(Tr. at 28). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that
Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, since December 11, 2014, the
alleged onset date of disability.” Id.
Standard of Review
court's role in reviewing claims brought under the Social
Security Act is a narrow one. The scope of its review is
limited to determining (1) whether there is substantial
evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of
the Commissioner, and (2) whether the correct legal standards
were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S.
389, 390, 401 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d
1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). The court approaches the factual
findings of the Commissioner with deference, but applies
close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v.
Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996). The court
may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id.
“The substantial evidence standard permits
administrative decision makers to act with considerable
latitude, and ‘the possibility of drawing two
inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent
an administrative agency's finding from being supported
by substantial evidence.'” Parker v.
Bowen, 793 F.2d 1177, 1181 (11th Cir. 1986) (Gibson, J.,
dissenting) (quoting Consolo v. Federal Mar.
Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if
this court finds that the evidence preponderates against the
Commissioner's decision, the court must affirm if the
decision is supported by substantial evidence.
Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400. No. decision is automatic,
however, for “despite this deferential standard [for
review of claims] it is imperative that the court scrutinize
the record in its entirety to determine the reasonableness of
the decision reached.” Bridges v. Bowen, 815
F.2d 622, 624 (11th Cir. 1987). Moreover, failure to apply
the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See
Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).
court must keep in mind that opinions such as whether a
claimant is disabled, the nature and extent of a
claimant's residual functional capacity, and the
application of vocational factors “are not medical
opinions, . . . but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved
to the commissioner because they are administrative findings
that are dispositive of a case; i.e., that would direct the
determination or decision of disability.” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(e), 416.927(d). Whether the plaintiff
meets the listing and is qualified for Social Security
disability benefits is a question reserved for the ALJ, and
the court “may not decide facts anew, reweigh the
evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the
Commissioner.” Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d
1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Thus, even if the court were to
disagree with the ALJ about the significance of certain
facts, the court has no power to reverse that finding as long
as there is substantial evidence in the record supporting it.
French argues that the ALJ's decision was erroneous and
should be reversed and remanded because the ALJ failed to
properly consider his testimony about the intensity,
frequency, and duration of his pain and other subjective
complaints. (Doc. 13, p. 11). The Commissioner, on the other
hand, argues that the ALJ's subjective complaint analysis
is supported by substantial evidence in the ...