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French v. Berryhill

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

January 30, 2019

TIMOTHY W. FRENCH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Timothy W. French, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”)[1] 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).

         The 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).

         When 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).

         The 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).

         Applying 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 further elaborated:

…[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)

         According 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.

         II. Standard of Review

         This 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).

         The 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.

         III. Discussion

         Mr. 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 ...


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