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Knox v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 27, 2019

TARAH S. KNOX, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Tarah S. Knox (hereinafter “Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401, et seq. On October 12, 2018, the parties consented to have the undersigned conduct any and all proceedings in this case. (Doc. 13). Thus, the action was referred to the undersigned to conduct all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. (Doc. 14). Upon careful consideration of the administrative record and the memoranda of the parties, it is hereby ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. Procedural History [1]

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for benefits on April 20, 2015, alleging disability beginning July 6, 2011, based on degenerative disc disease; arthritis in her back, neck, legs, and feet; bulging and herniated discs; right foot injury; nerve damage in her leg and foot; plantar fasciitis in both feet; and three surgeries on her right foot to remove two cysts, repair torn tendons, and remove pieces of her navicular bone. (Doc. 8 at 70, 113, 132). Plaintiff later amended the alleged onset date of her disability to February 11, 2013. (Id. at 99). Plaintiff's application was denied and, upon timely request, she was granted an administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge Ben E. Sheely (hereinafter “ALJ”) on December 20, 2016. (Id. at 31). Plaintiff attended the hearing with her counsel and provided testimony related to her claims. (Id. at 35). A vocational expert also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony. (Id. at 53). On March 24, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Id. at 15). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on October 13, 2017. (Id. at 4). Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated March 24, 2017, became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.).

         Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff timely filed the present civil action. (Doc. 1). Oral argument was conducted on November 19, 2018. (Doc. 20). This case is now ripe for judicial review and is properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g).

         II. Issue on Appeal

         Whether the ALJ reversibly erred in failing to expressly discuss whether Plaintiff's cervical and lumbar impairments meet Listing 1.04?

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born on March 16, 1975, and was forty-one years of age at the time of her administrative hearing on December 20, 2016. (Doc. 8 at 35, 113). Plaintiff reached, but did not complete, the eleventh grade in school. (Id. at 35). Plaintiff is able to read and write. (Id.).

         Plaintiff last worked as a shift manager at Starbucks in July 2011. (Id. at 36). Prior to working at Starbucks, she worked as a sales representative at a flower shop from 1999 to 2002. (Id. at 37). While working at Starbucks in 2010, Plaintiff tripped and fell over a floor mat, injuring her right foot and ankle and ultimately resulting in Plaintiff having three surgeries on her right foot in a span of approximately a year and a half. (Id.).[2]

         At her hearing, Plaintiff testified that she would probably be able to stand for about five minutes before needing to sit down because of swelling in her feet and radiating pain in her lower back. (Id. at 45). Plaintiff also testified that she could sit for “[a] good 15/20 minutes” before having to stand up because of back and neck pain. (Id. at 46). Plaintiff's foot and ankle injuries were treated with medications, such as Neurontin and Zorvolex, physical therapy, and surgically. (Id. at 39, 44, 46). Her lower back was treated with medications, injections, and ultimately a surgery in September 2015. (Id. at 40-41, 44). Plaintiff was prescribed Voltaren for her neck, and she testified at the hearing that she planned to have cervical epidural injections. (Id. at 41, 462).

         IV. Standard of Review

         In reviewing claims brought under the Act, this Court's role is a limited one. The Court's review is limited to determining (1) whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and (2) whether the correct legal standards were applied.[3] Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). A court may not decide the facts anew, reweigh the evidence, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Sewell v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 1065, 1067 (11th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's findings of fact must be affirmed if they are based upon substantial evidence. Brown v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1233, 1235 (11th Cir. 1991). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance” and consists of “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). In determining whether substantial evidence exists, a court must view the record as a whole, taking into account evidence both favorable and unfavorable to the Commissioner's decision. Chester v. Bowen, 792 F.2d 129, 131 (11th Cir. 1986); Short v. Apfel, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10163, at *4 (S.D. Ala. June 14, 1999).

         V. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         An individual who applies for Social Security disability benefits must prove his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512. Disability is defined as 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The Social Security regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant has proven his or her disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         The claimant must first prove that he or she is not engaged in substantial gainful activity. Carpenter v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 614 Fed.Appx. 482, 486 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam). The second step requires the claimant to prove that he or she has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. If, at the third step, the claimant proves that the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is automatically found disabled regardless of age, education, or work experience. Id. If the claimant cannot prevail at the third step, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four. Id. A claimant's RFC is an assessment, based on all relevant medical and other evidence, of a claimant's remaining ability to work despite his or her impairments. Lewis v. Callahan, 125 F.3d 1436, 1440 (11th Cir. 1997). Once a claimant's RFC is determined, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step, where the claimant must prove an inability to perform his or her past relevant work. Carpenter, 614 Fed.Appx. at 486.

         If a claimant meets his or her burden at the fourth step, it then becomes the Commissioner's burden to prove at the fifth step that the claimant is capable of engaging in another kind of substantial gainful employment which exists in significant numbers in the national economy, given the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work history. Sryock v. Heckler, 764 F.2d 834, 836 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam). If the Commissioner can demonstrate that there are such jobs the claimant can perform, the burden then shifts back to the claimant to prove his or her inability to perform those jobs in order to be found disabled. Hale v. Bowen, 831 F.2d 1007, 1011 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing Francis v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 1562, 1564 (11th Cir. 1985)).

         VI. ...

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