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Easter v. Berryhill

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

February 4, 2019

JERRY EASTER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff, Jerry Easter, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Mr. Easter 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).

         Mr. Easter was fifty-five years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision. (Tr. at 18.) He has a high school education and past work experience as a painter. (Tr. at 75, 186.) Mr. Easter claims that he became disabled on July 1, 2014, due to depression, anxiety, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), a bad back, and bad knees. (Tr. at 185.)

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled and thus eligible for DIB or SSI. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The evaluator will follow the steps in order until making a finding of either disabled or not disabled; if no finding is made, the analysis will proceed to the next step. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The first step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the plaintiff is not engaged in SGA, the evaluator moves on to the next step.

         The second step requires the evaluator to consider the combined severity of the plaintiff's medically determinable physical and mental impairments. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An individual impairment or combination of impairments that is not classified as “severe” and does not satisfy the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 will result in a finding of not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The decision depends on the medical evidence contained in the record. See Hart v. Finch, 440 F.2d 1340, 1341 (5th Cir. 1971) (concluding that “substantial medical evidence in the record” adequately supported the finding that plaintiff was not disabled).

         Similarly, the third step requires the evaluator to consider whether the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or is medically equal to the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the criteria of a listed impairment and the durational requirements set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509 and 416.909 are satisfied, the evaluator will make a finding of disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or medically equal a listed impairment, the evaluator must determine the plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. See Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The fourth step requires the evaluator to determine whether the plaintiff has the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments does not prevent him from performing his past relevant work, the evaluator will make a finding of not disabled. See id.

         The fifth and final step requires the evaluator to consider the plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience in order to determine whether the plaintiff can make an adjustment to other work. See Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the plaintiff can perform other work, the evaluator will find him not disabled. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the plaintiff cannot perform other work, the evaluator will find him disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ first determined that Mr. Easter has not engaged in SGA since October 8, 2014, the SSI application date. (Tr. at 13.) The ALJ found Plaintiff to have the following severe impairments: history of drug and alcohol abuse, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, mild COPD, and status post double coronary artery bypass grafting secondary to coronary artery disease. (Id.) However, she found that these impairments neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ determined that Mr. Easter has the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c) with the following limitations: he is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme humidity, and pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, chemicals and poorly ventilated areas; he should avoid exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery; and he is limited to unskilled work and should have no direct contact with the general public and is limited to occasional interaction with coworkers. (Tr. at 14.)

         Next, the ALJ obtained the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) and determined at steps four and five of the sequential evaluation process that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work but could make an adjustment to other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, such as hand packager, automatic machine tender, and box maker. (Tr. at 18-19.) The ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act since the date of his application. (Tr. at 19.)

         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 Stone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 544 Fed.Appx. 839, 841 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court gives deference to the factual findings of the Commissioner, provided those findings are supported by substantial evidence, but applies close scrutiny to the legal conclusions. See Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Nonetheless, this Court may not decide facts, weigh evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1240 n.8 (11th Cir. 2004)). “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. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966)). Indeed, even if this Court finds that the proof preponderates ...


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