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Gordon v. Berryhill

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

February 8, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          T. Michael Putnam United States Magistrate Judge

         I. introduction

         The plaintiff, Annie Grant Gordon, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner[1] of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mrs. Gordon timely pursued and exhausted her 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. 13).

         The plaintiff was 56 years old on the date of the ALJ's opinion on November 1, 2016. (Tr. at 30, 169). Her past work experience includes employment as a child development center teacher and childcare center director. (Tr. at 31). The plaintiff claims that she became disabled on July 17, 2010, from Addison's disease, hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease, osteoarthritis, and depression. (Tr. at 46). Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements under the Social Security Act on December 31, 2014. (Tr. at 22).

         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 she is, the claimant is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If she 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, she 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 her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.945(a)(1).

         The fourth step requires a determination of whether the claimant's impairments prevent her 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 her 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 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 her 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 the application date, July 17, 2010. (Tr. at 24). According to the ALJ, the plaintiff has the following impairments that are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations: “Addison's disease, [2] hypothyroidism, [3] Cushing's syndrome, [4]adjustment disorder, and osteoarthritis.” Id. He determined that the plaintiff's claim related to celiac disease was not supported by evidence of a medically determinable physical or mental condition. (Tr. at 25). The ALJ found that the plaintiff's impairments, separately and in combination, neither meet nor medically equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 25. The ALJ found that the plaintiff's hypothyroidism, Cushing's syndrome, and Addison's disease were not limiting to the levels required by the listing. Id. The ALJ also found that the plaintiff's adjustment disorder did not meeting listing requirements because she has only mild restriction in activities of daily life, mild difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties with regard to concentration. Id. The ALJ determined that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform work at the light level of exertion with additional limitations. Id. at 26. The ALJ further elaborated:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the administrative law judge finds that since July 17, 2010, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with the following clarifications and/or exceptions. The claimant is limited to unskilled work not requiring complex instructions or procedures. The claimant cannot work at unprotected heights or around hazardous machinery, and she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally stoop, couch [sic], and crawl. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold. Lastly, the claimant can tolerate frequent interaction with coworkers, supervisors and the general public.

(Tr. at 26).

         According to the ALJ, the plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. at 31). Before March 29, 2015 (the date on which she attained 55 years of age), she was an “individual closely approaching advanced age” and the “transferability of job skills was 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 transferrable job skills.” (Tr. at 31). During this time, the ALJ used the testimony of a vocational expert to determine that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she was capable of performing, such as garment sorter, marker, and inspector/hand packager. (Tr. at 32). However, on March 29, 2015, plaintiff's age category changed and she became an “individual of advanced age.” After that date, she was “unable to transfer job skills to other occupations” and there were “no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she] could perform.” (Tr. at 32). The plaintiff has “at least a high school education” and is “able to communicate in English” as those terms are defined in the regulations. (Tr. at 31). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff “was not disabled prior to March 29, 2015, but became disabled and has continued to be disabled through the date of this decision.” Id. at 33. Therefore, although the plaintiff was entitled to receive Supplemental Security Income, she was not entitled to disability insurance benefits because she became disabled after her last insured date of December 31, 2014.

         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. ...

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