United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
STEPHEN M. DOYLE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Harlow (“Plaintiff”) applied for a period of
disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II
of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) and
Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI alleging a
disability date of August 29, 2013. (R. 251-64). Plaintiff
subsequently amended the alleged onset date to January 14,
2014. (R. 278). The applications were denied on December 5,
2014. (R. 164-72). Plaintiff timely appealed and requested a
hearing. (R. 173-74). A hearing was held before the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 1,
2016. (R. 244-45). The ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision
on September 29, 2016. (R. 7-30). Plaintiff timely requested
review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (R.
250). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for
review. (R. 1-6). As a result, the ALJ's decision became
the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”). Id. Judicial review
proceeds pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(c). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both
parties have consented to the conduct of all proceedings and
entry of a final judgment by the undersigned United States
Magistrate Judge. Pl.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc.
10); Def.'s Consent to Jurisdiction (Doc. 9). After
careful scrutiny of the record and briefs, for reasons herein
explained, the Court concludes that the Commissioner's
decision is to be AFFIRMED.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is a
limited one. The Court's sole function is to determine
whether the ALJ's opinion is supported by substantial
evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied.
See Jones v. Apfel, 190 F.3d 1224, 1228 (11th Cir.
1999); Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239
(11th Cir. 1983). “The Social Security Act mandates
that ‘findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive.'” Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d
1553, 1560 (11th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §405(g)).
Thus, this Court must find the Commissioner's decision
conclusive if it is supported by substantial evidence.
Graham v. Apfel, 129 F.3d 1420, 1422 (11th Cir.
1997). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla - i.e.,
the evidence must do more than merely create a suspicion of
the existence of a fact and must include such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to
support the conclusion. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d
1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997) (citing Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); Foote, 67
F.3d at 1560 (citing Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d
835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982)).
Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial
evidence, the district court will affirm, even if the court
would have reached a contrary result as finder of fact, and
even if the evidence preponderates against the
Commissioner's findings. Ellison v. Barnhart,
355 F.3d 1272, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003); Edwards v.
Sullivan, 937 F.2d 580, 584 n.3 (11th Cir. 1991)
(quoting MacGregor v. Bowen, 786 F.2d 1050, 1053
(11th Cir. 1986)). The Court must view the evidence as a
whole, taking into account evidence favorable as well as
unfavorable to the decision. Foote, 67 F.3d at 1560
(citing Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th
Cir. 1986). The Court “may not decide facts anew,
reweigh the evidence, or substitute [its] judgment for that
of the [Commissioner], ” but rather it “must
defer to the Commissioner's decision if it is supported
by substantial evidence.” Miles v. Chater, 84
F.3d 1397, 1400 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting
Bloodsworth, 703 F.2d at 1239).
Court will reverse a Commissioner's decision on review if
the decision applies incorrect law, or if the decision fails
to provide the district court with sufficient reasoning to
determine that the Commissioner properly applied the law.
Keeton v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 21
F.3d 1064, 1066 (11th Cir. 1994) (citing Cornelius v.
Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145 (11th Cir. 1991)). There
is no presumption that the Commissioner's conclusions of
law are valid. Id.; Brown v. Sullivan, 921
F.2d 1233, 1236 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting MacGregor,
786 F.2d at 1053).
STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
Act's general disability insurance benefits program
(“DIB”) provides income to individuals who are
forced into involuntary, premature retirement, provided they
are both insured and disabled, regardless of indigence.
See 42 U.S.C. § 423(a). The Act's
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) is a
separate and distinct program. SSI is a general public
assistance measure providing an additional resource to the
aged, blind, and disabled to assure that their income does
not fall below the poverty line. Eligibility for SSI is based
upon proof of indigence and disability. See 42
U.S.C. §§ 1382(a), 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(C). However,
despite the fact they are separate programs, the law and
regulations governing a claim for DIB and a claim for SSI are
identical. See Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103,
1105-06 (5th Cir. 1980). Therefore, claims for DIB and SSI
are treated identically for the purpose of determining
whether a claimant is disabled. Patterson v. Bowen,
799 F.2d 1455, 1456 n.1 (11th Cir. 1986). Applicants under
DIB and SSI must prove “disability” within the
meaning of the Act, which defines disability in virtually
identical language for both programs. See 42 U.S.C.
§§ 423(d), 1382c(a)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(G); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). A person is entitled to
disability benefits when the person is unable 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§
423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A “physical or mental
impairment” is one resulting from “anatomical,
physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are
demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§
Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation
process to determine whether a claimant is entitled to
benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
(1) Is the person presently unemployed?
(2) Is the person's impairment(s) severe?
(3) Does the person's impairment(s) meet or equal one of
the specific impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1?
(4) Is the person unable to perform his or her former
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the
An affirmative answer to any of the questions leads either to
the next question, or, on steps three and five, to a finding
of disability. A negative answer to any question, other than
step three, leads to a determination of “not
McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir.
burden of proof rests on a claimant through step four.
See Phillips v. Barnhart, 357 F.3d 1232, 1237-39
(11th Cir. 2004). Claimants establish a prima facie case of
qualifying for disability once they meet the burden of proof
from step one through step four. At step five, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner, who must then show that there are
a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the
claimant can perform. Id.
perform the fourth and fifth steps, the ALJ must determine
the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity
(“RFC”). Id. at 1238-39. RFC is what the
claimant is still able to do despite his impairments and is
based on all relevant medical and other evidence.
Id. It also can contain both exertional and
non-exertional limitations. Id. at 1242-43. At the
fifth step, the ALJ considers the claimant's RFC, age,
education, and work experience to determine if there are jobs
available in the national economy that the claimant can
perform. Id. at 1239. To do this, the ALJ can either
use the Medical Vocational Guidelines (“grids”)
or hear testimony from a vocational expert
(“VE”). Id. at 1239-40.
grids allow the ALJ to consider factors such as age,
confinement to sedentary or light work, inability to speak
English, educational deficiencies, and lack of job
experience. Each factor can independently limit the number of
jobs realistically available to an individual. Id.
at 1240. Combinations of these factors yield a
statutorily-required finding of “Disabled” or
“Not Disabled.” Id.
ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
was forty-three years old as of the alleged onset date. (R.
280). Plaintiff had a seventh-grade education and worked as
taxi driver; a bartender, cook, and server; a garment sorter;
a retail clerk; and a factory inspector. (R. 311-19).
Plaintiff ceased working on ...