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Smith v. Berryhill

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

March 20, 2019

VOLA SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         The plaintiff, Vola Smith, appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”)[1] denying her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Smith 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. 16).

         The plaintiff was 47 years old on the date of the ALJ's opinion, on August 23, 2016. (Tr. at 66). Her past work experience includes employment as a nurse's aide, teacher's aide, tire builder, and motor vehicle assembler. (Tr. at 65). The plaintiff claims that she became disabled on August 21, 2013, from pain arising from or secondary to right epicondylar release surgery, right hand stiffness and pain, plantar foot lesions, and severe low back pain. (Tr. at 144-5).

         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 his or 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 in this case, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of May 26, 2014. (Tr. at 56). According to the ALJ, the plaintiff has the following impairments that are considered “severe” based on the requirements set forth in the regulations: “bilateral foot lesions, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, obesity, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, and asthma.” Id. He also determined that the plaintiff's “gastroesophageal reflux disease [(GERD)], hyperlipidemia, and essential hypertension” are non-severe. Id. 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. at 57. The ALJ found the plaintiff to have mild restriction in activities of daily life, mild difficulties in social functioning, mild difficulties with regard to concentration, and no episodes of decompensation. (Tr. at 57). The ALJ determined that the plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform work at a sedentary level of exertion as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(a) with additional limitations. Id. at 59. The ALJ further elaborated:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) with the following clarifications or exceptions. The claimant can occasionally push and/or pull with her upper and lower right extremities. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, although she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally balance and stoop, but never kneel, crouch or crawl. The claimant cannot reach overhead with her upper right extremity, although she can frequently reach in all other directions, handle, finger and feel with her right extremity. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat, extreme cold, vibration, fumes, odors, chemicals, gases, and dust and poorly ventilated areas. The claimant should not operate a motor vehicle or be exposed to dangerous machinery, unprotected heights or work requiring walking on uneven or slippery surfaces.

(Tr. at 59)

         According to the ALJ, the plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, is a “younger individual, ” and has “a high school education and is able to communicate in English” as those terms are defined by the regulations. (Tr. at 65-6). He determined that “[t]ransferability of job skills is 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 transferable job skills.” (Tr. at 66). Even though the plaintiff can perform only a limited range of sedentary work, the ALJ determined that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, such as surveillance system monitor, order clerk, and charge account clerk. (Tr. at 36). The ALJ concluded his findings by stating that Plaintiff “has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 26, 2014, through the date of this decsision.” Id.

         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

         Claimant Smith argues that the ALJ's decision was erroneous and should be remanded for two reasons. (Doc. 11, p.1-2). First, she claims that the ALJ erred in “rejecting the findings of every treating physician. In doing so, the ALJ misrepresented or ignored evidence.” Id. at 1. Second, Smith argues that the Appeals Council failed to consider medical records provided to it only because the care was obtained after the ALJ's decision. Id. at 2.

         A. Treating ...


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