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Pickett v. Berryhill

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

February 28, 2019

TYRONE PICKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler, United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Tyrone Pickett, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Pickett 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. Pickett was 44 years old at the time of the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) decision. (Tr. at 21, 111.) He has a high school education and past work experiences as a general manager, sales manager, salesman, and material handler. (Tr. at 21, 121.) Mr. Pickett claims that he became disabled on November 23, 2012, as a result of multiple bulging lumbar discs, patellar/knee pain, anxiety and panic attacks, and depression. (Tr. at 133.)

         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 found that Mr. Pickett last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2015. (Tr. at 13.) She further determined that Mr. Pickett did not engage in SGA from the alleged onset of his disability on November 23, 2012, through the date last insured, December 31, 2015. (Id.) According to the ALJ, through the date last insured, Plaintiff's status-post lumbar discectomy, status-post right knee arthroscopy, and anxiety disorder are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations. (Id.) However, she found that, through the date last insured, these impairments neither met nor medically equaled any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. at 14.) The ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, Mr. Pickett had the RFC to lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he could stand or walk up to six hours and sit up to six hours total in an eight-hour work day; he could push and pull with the right lower extremity; he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and cold; he should never be exposed to hazards such as unprotected heights or hazardous machinery; he could understand, remember, and carry out short and simple instructions, but that he would have difficulty with detailed tasks and instructions; he could maintain attention and concentration in two-hour increments with customary breaks; he could have only occasional contact with the public; he would work best in small groups of familiar co-workers and work better with things than people; and that changes in the workplace should be occasional and introduced gradually. (Tr. at 15-16.)

         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 not capable of performing his past relevant work but that he could make an adjustment to other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, such as housekeeper, packager, and laundry worker. (Tr. at 21-22). The ALJ concluded her findings by stating that Plaintiff was not under a “disability, ” as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date through the date last insured. (Tr. at 22.)

         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 against the Commissioner's decision, it must affirm if the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Miles, 84 F.3d at 1400 (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         However, no decision is automatic, for “despite th[e] deferential standard [for review of claims], it is imperative that th[is] 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) (citing Arnold v. Heckler, 732 F.2d 881, 883 (11th Cir. 1984)). Moreover, failure to apply the correct legal standards is grounds for reversal. See Bowen v. Heckler, 748 F.2d 629, 635 (11th Cir. 1984).

         III. ...


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