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Herald v. Berryhill

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

March 13, 2019

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



         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Timothy Herald, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner[1] of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Mr. Herald 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 47 years old on the date that he was last insured, March 31, 2013. (Tr. at 30). His past work experience includes employment as a welder helper, mobile home assembler, and construction laborer. (Tr. at 30). The plaintiff claims that he became disabled on June 30, 2009, from severe vascular disease, chronic pain in his feet and toes, four desiccated disks, nerve damage and arthritis in his left hip, depression, migraines, knee problems, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (Doc. 15, p. 2). Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2013. (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 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 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 or 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 in this case, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June, 30, 2009. (Tr. at 13). According to the ALJ, the plaintiff had the following impairments that are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations: “status post aortobifemoral bypass due to peripheral vascular disease, multi-level cervical disc disease most prominent at ¶ 3/4 and C5/6, degenerative disc disease, lumbar spine (mild), history of CAD (coronary artery disease) (minimal), bradycardia (mild), headaches, and chronic pain syndrome with chronic narcotic dependence.” Id. at 22. He also determined that the plaintiff's “hypertension and adjustment disorder with depressed mood, mild, untreated” were non-severe. Id. at 23. The ALJ found that the plaintiff's severe and non-severe 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. The ALJ stated that “[n]either the claimant, nor his representative alleged that the claimant has an impairment, singly or in combination, that meets or medically equals any listed impairment. Id. The ALJ found the plaintiff to have mild restriction in activities of daily life, mild difficulties in social functioning, and mild difficulties with regard to concentration, pace, and persistence. Id. The ALJ determined that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform work at the light level of exertion with additional restrictions. Id. at 24. The ALJ further elaborated:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). The undersigned further finds, however, that the full range of light work that could be performed by the claimant is reduced by the following functional limitations: the claimant would require a sit/stand option with the retained ability to stay on or at a workstation in no less than 30 minute increments each without significant reduction of remaining on task, and he is able to ambulate short distances up to 100 yards per instance on flat hard surfaces. He is able to occasionally use bilateral foot controls and frequently use bilateral hand controls. He can frequently reach overhead bilaterally, frequently reach in all other directions bilaterally and frequently hand, finger and feel bilaterally. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders or scaffolds. He can frequently balance but can only occasionally stoop and never crouch, kneel or crawl. He would be restricted from performing quick, rapid or repetitive movements of the head to the left, right or up and down but can perform in occupations where head and neck movements are slow and self-paced. The claimant should never be exposed to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, dangerous tools, or hazardous processes or operate commercial vehicles. The undersigned further finds that the claimant would be limited to routine and repetitive tasks and simple work-related decisions. He would be able to accept constructive non-confrontational criticism, work in small group settings and be able to accept changes in the workplace setting if introduced gradually and infrequently. In addition to normal workday breaks, he would be off-task 5% of an 8-hour workday (non-consecutive minutes).

(Tr. at 24-5)

         According to the ALJ, the plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work through the date last insured, he was a “younger individual” on the date last insured, and has “a limited education and is able to communicate in English, ” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 30). The ALJ determined, on the basis of the testimony of a vocational expert, that there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that he is capable of performing, such as a marker, small parts inspector, and inspector and hand packager. (Tr. at 31). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff “was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from June 30, 2009, the alleged onset date, through March 31, 2013, the date last insured.” Id. at 32.

         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

         Plaintiff, Timothy Herald, argues that the ALJ's finding that he was able to perform light work was not supported by substantial evidence and that the case should be remanded on that ground. (Doc. 13, p. 11). The Commissioner argues that there is ...

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