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Harlow v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

March 26, 2019

KIMBERLY HARLOW, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHEN M. DOYLE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Kimberly 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.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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)).

         If the 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).

         The 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).

         II. STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

         The 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. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The Commissioner employs a five-step, sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is entitled to benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2010).

(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 occupation?
(5) Is the person unable to perform any other work within the economy?
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 disabled.”

McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986).

         The 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.

         To 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.

         The 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.

         III. ADMINISTRATIVE FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS

         Plaintiff 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 ...


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