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Lee v. Social Security Administration, Commissioner

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

March 27, 2019

JULIAN R. LEE, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Commissioner, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          STACI G. CORNELIUS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Julian R. Lee, Jr., appeals from the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Plaintiff timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies, and the decision of the Commissioner is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is due to be affirmed.

         I. FACTS, FRAMEWORK, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case has a long history. Plaintiff's claims for DIB and SSI date back to October 6, 2009, when he protectively filed, alleging a disability onset of June 28, 2008. (Doc. 15 at 1). The first ALJ denied Plaintiff's claims on March 24, 2011, and eventually he appealed in this district. (Id. at 2). See Lee v. Colvin, No. 12-2935-KOB (N.D. Ala. filed Sept. 7, 2012). On March 31, 2014, Chief Judge Bowdre remanded to the Commissioner based on the first ALJ's misinterpretation of a report completed by Ms. Mina Price, a licensed clinical social worker. Id. at Doc. 11.

         The Appeals Council remanded, and a second ALJ, Judge Merchant, issued an unfavorable decision on January 12, 2015. (R. 610-29). The Appeals Council remanded, finding Judge Merchant's assessment of Ms. Price's opinion was inconsistent with both Chief Judge Bowdre's order of remand and SSR 06-03p. (R. 636-37). Judge Merchant issued another unfavorable decision on June 3, 2016. (R. 642-654). The Appeals Council denied review, and Plaintiff appealed in this district. Accordingly, Judge Merchant's June 3, 2016 decision is the relevant opinion for purposes of this appeal. (Id.).

         Plaintiff was thirty-eight at the alleged onset date; he was forty-six at the time of the ALJ's decision. (See R. 652). Plaintiff has a high school education and is able to communicate in English. (Id.). Plaintiff's past employment experience includes work as a forklift operator, day laborer, and grocery stocker. (Id.). Plaintiff alleged disability due to bipolar disorder and "deteriorating discs in [his] back." (R. 172).

         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; Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step requires a determination whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in SGA, he or she is not disabled and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the Commissioner proceeds to consider the combined effects of all the claimant's physical and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). These impairments must be severe and must meet durational requirements before a claimant will be found 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, at which the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments meet 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 impairments fall within this category, the claimant will be found disabled without further consideration. Id. If the impairments do not fall within the listings, the Commissioner determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).

         At step four the Commissioner determines whether the impairments prevent the claimant from returning to past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, he or she is not disabled, and the evaluation stops. Id. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, at which the Commissioner considers the claimant's RFC, as well as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience to determine whether he or she can perform other work. Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can do other work, he or she is not disabled. Id.

         Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset of his disability. (R. 644). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine ("DDD"), depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equaling any of the listed impairments. (R. 645). Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations:

the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can do no work around unprotected heights or uneven terrain. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions for two-hour periods to sustain an eight-hour workday, provided all customary mid-morning, lunch, and mid-afternoon breaks are provided. The claimant can have occasional decision-making and infrequent changes in the work setting. The claimant can have occasional interaction with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors.

(R. 647).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. (R. 652). Because the RFC did not allow a return to past work, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert to find a significant number of jobs in the national economy Plaintiff could perform. (R. 652-53). The ALJ concluded by finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 653).

         II. ...


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