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Clark v. Berryhill

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

February 27, 2019

KATHY ANN CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN E. OTT CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Kathy Ann Clark appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (“the Act”).[1] (Doc. 1).[2] Clark timely pursued and exhausted her administrative remedies, and the Commissioner's decision is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.[3]

         I. Procedural History

         Clark was forty-seven years old as of the date of her current application for SSI. (R. 96, 161).[4] She completed the seventh grade and did not obtain a GED. (R. at 40-41). She can read and write, add and subtract, and make change. (R. at 41-42). Her past work history includes factory work. (R. 188, 193-203). Plaintiff last worked in 2000 and claimed she could no longer work due to a variety of issues, including a stroke, deep vein thrombosis, a broken tail bone with bone spurs, hip pain, a torn ligament in her right shoulder, left ear deafness, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, arthritis, leg issues, vision issues, and acid reflux. (R. at 187). After her claims were denied, Clark requested a hearing before an ALJ. (R. at 114-19, 31-71). At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to be her application date, September 23, 2015. (R. at 35). Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Clark's claim. (R. at 12-30). After the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision, (R. at 1-5), that decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, see Frye v. Massanari, 209 F.Supp.2d 1246, 1251 (N.D. Ala. 2001) (citing Falge v. Apfel, 150 F.3d 1320, 1322 (11th Cir. 1998)). Thereafter, Clark initiated this action. (Doc. 1).

         II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

          To establish her eligibility for disability benefits, a claimant must show “the inability to engage in 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 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1)(A), 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). SSI is not payable prior to the month following the month in which the application was filed. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.335; Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1208, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The Social Security Administration employs a five-step sequential analysis to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         First, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Under the first step, the claimant has the burden to show that she is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.” Reynolds-Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 457 Fed.Appx. 862, 863 (11th Cir. 2012).[5] If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) and (b). At the first step, the ALJ determined Clark has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date of September 25, 2015. (R. at 17).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner must next determine whether the claimant suffers from a severe physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Id. at § 404.1508. Furthermore, it “must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by [the claimant's] statement of symptoms.” Id.; see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). An impairment is severe if it “significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities . . . .” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).[6] “[A]n impairment can be considered as not severe only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (11th Cir. 1984); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). A claimant may be found disabled based on a combination of impairments, even though none of her individual impairments alone is disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. The claimant bears the burden of providing medical evidence demonstrating an impairment and its severity. Id. at § 404.1512(a) and (c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and (c).

         At the second step, the ALJ determined Clark has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the spine; diabetes mellitus; and obesity. (R. at 17-21). The ALJ specifically excluded the following medically determinable impairments because she found none of them causes more than minimal functional limitations: hearing loss not treated with cochlear implants; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; deep vein thrombosis; gastroesophageal reflux disease; hypertension; and osteoarthritis. (R. at 18-19).

         If the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the Commissioner must then determine whether the impairment meets or equals one of the “Listings” found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); see also Id. at § 404.1525-26. The claimant bears the burden of proving her impairment meets or equals one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the Listings, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) and (d). At the third step, the ALJ determined Clark did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the Listings. (R. at 21).

         If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal one of the Listings, the Commissioner must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to the fourth step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); see also Id. at § 404.1545. A claimant's RFC is the most she can do despite his impairment. See Id. at § 404.1545(a)(1). At the fourth step, the Commissioner will compare her assessment of the claimant's RFC with the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work. Id. at §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and (e), 404.1560(b). “Past relevant work is work that [the claimant] [has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it.” Id. § 404.1560(b)(1). The claimant bears the burden of proving that her impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1560(b)(3).

         Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ determined Clark has the RFC to perform a limited range of light work. (R. at 21-22). More specifically, the ALJ found the following limitations to light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b):

lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk with normal breaks for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit with normal breaks for six hours in an eight-hour workday; same limitations for pushing and pulling as for lifting and carrying; frequently climb ramps and stairs; occasionally climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; frequently balance and kneel; occasionally stoop, crouch, and crawl; occasionally reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards including dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights; tolerate a noise level of two; and hear and understand normal conversation.

(Id. at 21-22). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Clark had no past relevant work. (Id. at 24).

         If the claimant is unable to perform her past relevant work, the Commissioner must finally determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1), 404.1560(c)(1). If the claimant is capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is not disabled. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(v) and (g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of performing other work, the Commissioner will determine the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At the fifth step, considering Clark's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined Clark can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as those of label marker, small product assembler and poultry boner. (R. at 25). Therefore, the ALJ concluded Clark has not been under a disability as ...


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