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Smith v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

March 20, 2019

DANNY JOSEPH SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION[1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Danny Joseph Smith, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Smith timely pursued and exhausted his 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.

         I. Procedural History

         Smith completed the tenth grade, later obtained his GED, and has previously worked as a painter, commercial cleaner, street sweeper, and auction helper. (Tr. at 23, 43, 292). In his application for DIB, Smith claimed he became disabled on January 31, 2013, due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), chronic atrial fibrillation, and high blood pressure. (Id. at 195). After his claims were denied, Smith requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 215, 222). Following a hearing, the ALJ denied Smith's claims. (Id. at 17-25). Smith was 55 years old when the ALJ issued his decision. (Id. at 25, 195). After the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision (id. at 9-11), 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, Smith commenced this action. (Doc. 1).[2]

         II. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

          To establish 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). Furthermore, a claimant must show that he was disabled between his alleged initial onset date and his date last insured. Mason v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 430 Fed.Appx. 830, 831 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Moore v. Barnhart, 405 F.3d 1209, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005); Demandre v. Califano, 591 F.2d 1088, 1090 (5th Cir. 1979)). 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). 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 Smith last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on September 30, 2013, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of January 31, 2013. (Tr. at 19).

         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).[3] “[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 his 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 Smith has the following severe impairments: right eye blindness, obesity, COPD, and thyroiditis. (Tr. at 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 his impairment meets or equals one of the Listings. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed. App'x 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 Smith does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the Listings. (Tr. at 19-20).

         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 he 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 his impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work. Reynolds-Buckley, 457 Fed.Appx. at 863. If the claimant is capable of performing his 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 Smith has the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations: he can only ambulate short distances up to 100 yards per instance on flat, hard surfaces but can frequently use bilateral foot controls; he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders or scaffolds; he can frequently stoop but only occasionally crouch, kneel, and crawl; he must avoid exposure to hazards such as heights and machinery but is able to avoid ordinary workplace hazards such as boxes on the floor, doors left ajar, and approaching people or vehicles; he must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights; he cannot operate a commercial motor vehicle; he must avoid exposure to concentrated dust, fumes, gases, and other pulmonary irritants; he is limited to routine and repetitive tasks and simple work-related decisions; and in addition to normal workday breaks, he will be off task 5% of an eight-hour workday, non- consecutively. (Tr. at 20-23). At the fourth step, the ALJ determined Smith is not capable of performing any of his past relevant work. (Id. at 23).

         If the claimant is unable to perform his 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 Smith's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Smith can perform, such as those of a bakery worker, machine tender, and sorter. (Tr. at 23-24). Therefore, the ALJ concluded Smith is not disabled. (Id. at 24-25).

         III. Standard of Review

         Review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to a determination whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner applied correct legal standards. Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). A district court must review the Commissioner's findings of fact with deference and may not reconsider the facts, reevaluate the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ingram v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 496 F.3d 1253, 1260 (11th Cir. 2007); Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005). Rather, a district court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983) (internal citations omitted). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id. A district court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence, even if the preponderance of the evidence is against those findings. Miles v. Chater, 84 F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         A district court reviews the Commissioner's legal conclusions de novo. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). “The [Commissioner's] failure to apply the correct law or to provide the reviewing court with sufficient reasoning for determining that the proper legal analysis has been conducted mandates reversal.” Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         IV. Discussion

         On appeal, Smith argues (1) the ALJ failed to establish the onset date of his disability, (2) he has an impairment that meets Listing 3.02A, (3) the ALJ failed to make a determination regarding his credibility, (4) the ALJ erroneously relied on his inability to quit smoking as evidence of non-compliance with treatment recommendations, (5) the finding he has the RFC to perform light work is not supported by substantial evidence, and (6) the ALJ failed to apply Grid Rule 201.14.

         A. Onset Date of Disability

         Dr. Anand Iyer provided a medical source opinion after performing a consultative examination of Smith. (Tr. at 448-57). The ALJ found the medical source opinion revealed Smith is unable to perform even sedentary work. (Id. at 22). However, the ALJ determined the opinion could not be used to establish disability because the examination on which it was based was performed in January 2016, more than two years after Smith's date last insured, September 30, 2013. (Id.).

         The ALJ also found the results of spirometry testing show Smith has an impairment that meets Listing 3.02A. (Id. at 22-23, 442-47).[4] However, the ALJ similarly determined the testing could not be used to establish disability because it was performed in January 2016, more than two years after Smith's date last insured, September 30, 2013. (Id. at 23). The ALJ further determined medical records pre-dating Smith's date last ...


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